Maura is a director, producer and dramaturg

I am becoming increasingly drawn towards theatre and performance with a small footprint. It is hard to define what I mean by that in a comprehensive way or with a set of rules, but I know I mean living room plays that are meant for an audience of no more than 15-20. I mean shows that have a set of ambitions or an experiment clearly defined. I mean shows that have limited design resources but waste nothing and draw a world all the same. I guess most of all I mean shows that instead have the joy and precision of the people that made them at their center.

 

Eva Steinmetz’s Shuttlefish was one of these shows. Everything about it felt specific and full of care to me, from the performances to Biko Koenig’s visual design to the fascinating use of a live string trio. I think it is a piece that is meant to be interpreted differently by each audience member, but for me, it was about navigating relationships with both loved ones and the inside of one’s own head in the face of grief or inalterable circumstances. It mattered to me to see an ensemble full of women burrowing into caregiving and the creeping emotional violence of certain kinds of intimacy. Like with a lot of ensemble-created work, I did have the feeling that I missed something, that the ensemble knows the piece and its layers inside and out in a way that is impenetrable to me. But in this case, I kind of liked that feeling, perhaps because the core exploration felt so clear that it has snuck back into my thoughts and warmed me for the past week.

 

One of the strengths of the piece for me was the very different way each performer took up space. Sarah Knittel’s chatty direction-giving monologue brought us into the piece easily, ending on a surprise dark note. Lillian Ransijn and Johanna Kasimow’s scene of domestic dialogue was choreographed to be still with the occasional tense cross in a way that very much evoked the inability to communicate during a hard time. Alex Tatarsky’s hilarious turn as a whiny, needy character being tended by the other women cracked me up, and also skewered me in my own memories of being a brat when other concerns were pressing on the people around me. Throughout the piece, these four moved like they were selectively tethered to each other, creating images and body language that always fed into the center of the moment. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mark Andalyn Young’s ability to be expressive and magnetic while seated for almost the entire show, doing a controlled and magnetic slump circle dance in her chair.

 

From a design perspective, the show felt spare, taking place in the elegant wooden box of a long yoga studio. A collection of Ikea (or Ikea-esque) lamps provided most of the lighting, and the operation of them was carefully worked into the performer’s choreography. Pristine yellow raincoats (all but one) hung on the wall, creating such a sense of satisfaction for me when they were finally used. But, the most exciting thing for me about the show was the use of the live string trio. There was a direct contrast between the use of recorded symphonic music and the performance of the trio, which played up how much these real human musicians aren’t meant to be background. They were part of the show, related to the momentum of the piece, pausing to address their dynamics as a group, cut out of relevance and then required back by one of the performers. While I’ll admit that Bach is fraught music for me for personal reasons, I deeply felt the music as an emotional score that startles, misbehaves; one that is compassionate and flawed and measured and chaotic. It made me think of the inside of my own head.

 

I guess I am rhapsodizing a little, but I’d rather dwell on the things about a piece like this that nourish me, rather than the few instances that I drifted away or was lost in a slightly frustrating way. I want to honor the skill and generosity that Eva brought to crafting this piece, and I want to remind audiences to go to the less showy, extravagant pieces sometimes. It sounds corny, but it’s so enlivening to really be able to see the beating heart of something. It’ll be a while before the impressions from Shuttlefish pass out of my head, especially the image of four women in yellow raincoats tightly together, conducting and rowing and battling an invisible storm all at once.

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