nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 11, 2008
Whisper is a new experiential performance work by Peter S. Petralia and Proto-type Theater. It's acted by Alice Booth, Gillian Lees, and Andrew Westerside, and features design elements by Philip Reeder and Rebecca M.K. Makus.
I call it experiential because what it's "about" is the experience itself—what it feels like to be "in" it, as opposed to advancing a specific story line, theme, or even mood. It's a fascinating happening that will be tempered very strongly by your own individual sensory preferences and limitations.
Actually only two senses are involved here, and they're each put through their paces rather vigorously. Sound is almost entirely transmitted to each audience member via a set of headphones. The three actors on stage provide a running narration in the second person ("You are on a street"—that sort of thing) that describes what we "see." Almost always, we do not literally see what's described, however; instead we hear sounds that sound like what we're said to be seeing, and we see actors making those sounds (speaking into microphones; crumpling paper to make it sound like it's raining; throwing blocks on the floor to make it sound like someone is chopping wood).
We also sometimes see imagery suggestive of what we're purported to "see"—confetti thrown into the air, for example, accompanies a poetically savage description of a man hanging himself outside his window.
And we also see, much of the time, silhouettes of the three actors that often appear to enact, in broad metaphorical terms, some of what's described. The dichotomy of ephemeral flickering versions of the actors made out of projected light and actual actors on stage, apparently at odds with each other, made for an interesting puzzle within Whisper that so far I haven't been able to resolve to my own satisfaction. (By which I mean: I was never entirely sure what the artifice and immediacy of the actors contributed to the piece.)
But I am sure what the presence of an audience contributes. My companion told me afterward the she found the narration in her headphones lulling and that that forced her to focus more and more on the visual elements of the show, which for her became increasingly compelling. I, on the other hand, found myself dealing with a (literal) handicap—I am almost entirely deaf in one ear, and with the narration delivered into the headphones in stereo, I ended up not hearing about a third of the text. Interestingly, this deficit made me hungry for what I was missing, and so I gave less attention to some of the visuals while concentrating hard on the words (and really appreciating Petralia's remarkable verbal imagery).
Whisper is short (about 45 minutes) but memorable and intoxicating, whichever sense(s) it engages. I believe the experience will be different for each person, and if you see it, be sure to go with a group that you can discuss it with afterward. The headphones isolate us in an unexpected way—I don't think I was aware of a single moment of group reaction to anything that happened on stage. This, I believe, is some of what Petralia is exploring in this unusual and authentically experimental piece.