Last night, Director Kyle Loven (my dear Lewis, Loss Machine) premiered Retraces at 12th Ave Arts, which will run through Sunday. I saw a press preview on Thursday and was underwhelmed by the show but ultimately jazzed by Amiya Brown's lighting and a few of the cool special FX.
The play feels like a creepy episode of Peanuts, but maybe I only say that because the lead, John Leith, sported a shaved head and wore an oversized mustard-yellow cardigan reminiscent of C. Brown. The other main actor, Ezra Dickinson, silently performance-danced around Leith—sometimes retracing his movements (get it!?)—like some kind of shadow, or a modern dance export of his consciousness. It was as if Schroeder traded in his piano for a pair of mauve tights. (To be fair, Dickinson actually danced in jeans during the show.)
Retraces is a blissfully short, dystopian abstraction. Leith's character seems to be buried in some kind of small apartment in rural Nowheresville, U.S.A. He speaks with an enigmatic friend through a large phone that looks like one of those cell phones from the '90s. There's a enigmatic "They" who may or may not be after Leith's character and who may or may not be communicating enigmatic messages via a gas station marquis board in town. There is tin foil, and that tin foil gets wrapped around weird parts of the actors' bodies in order to amplify the enigmatic messages they receive.
Meanwhile, composer Paurl Walsh stands at a spotlit synth board placed off to the side of the stage and blasts music that only our beloved Dave Segal could love; mostly diving and swelling static mixed in with noises that naturally occur in elevator shafts.
Despite the fact that I found it hard to get past the dystopian clichés, there was still some cool stuff going on in the realm of "advanced puppetry." Loven created miniature sets, trained a camera on them, and then projected them onto a large screen so it seemed as if the actors were walking around in a 3-D space.
There was some relationship between this projected scene and the live scene, but it was mostly atmospheric. The big thing that happened a couple times: An actor in ninja-like black costume puppetmastered a large tumbleweed across the stage, and then another actor in a ninja-like black costume puppetmastered a mini tumbleweed in front of the camera, which showed up as a large tumbleweed blowing across the scene on the projection. FX such as these were compelling, but they didn't seem integral to the action. As a metaphor, the FX might suggest that the world in which these characters live is a mere projection controlled by the enigmatic "They" (all the world's a stage, yada yada), but the metaphor isn't really explored in the narrative or in the characters' development, so it just feels like dramatic icing.
Weirdly, though, I kinda bonded with the wire mesh shadow-ghost thing you see in the photo above. The actors in ninja-like black costumes would trot out the prop and have it participate in certain activities that would move the plot forward. Sometimes it would just meditate in the middle of the stage. Sometimes, it would kind of swim-float around. If anything, it was the only character who truthfully embodied the play: a sketch of a figure, filigreed with light.