Spectacle, experimental, physical, traditional. These are the various theatrical forms that actor and mask designer Kali Quinn, co-founder of GUTWorks Theater, recently used to describe the company's highly acclaimed stage production, "This is the Place of Parting," which will be performed throughout Windham County starting Aug. 29 at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
Written by Neil Knox and directed by Daniel Burmester, the play is an amalgam of diverse sensibilities and methodologies, tackling everything from fear and death to joy and renewal or, as Quinn puts it, "It's 'Lord of the Rings' meets 'The Wizard of Oz' meets 'The Matrix'."
Examining challenges familiar to everyone, such as grief, guilt, faith and loss of love, the storyline revolves around the experience of an author, played by Joe Raik, who wrestles with issues of his own mortality while writing about the end of the world.
Derived from the Latin "terminus est" — which literally translates to "ending is"— "This is the Place of Parting" is a bold, multidimensional journey that addresses universal themes in the human experience through acting, movement, puppets, music and imagery. According to Quinn, who formed GUTWorks in New York City two years ago with Burmester and actor Jonathan Maloney before moving it to Southern Vermont earlier this year, the play is inclusive, innovative and versatile.
"It reaches a broad audience," she says, "and gives every audience member a way in, whether you like rock music, traditional theater or if you enjoy visual art. There are photos on a screen, fabrics that become oceans, a huge lion puppet, a live band and recycled materials where a trunk becomes a desk, a box in a scientific experiment, and then a pulpit from which someone gives a sermon, so it's a visceral experience."
Within the narrative arc of the play, scale serves as a prominent device. "The play involves heightened characters, make-up and costumes," offers Quinn, "with a larger than life lion, zookeeper and priest playing out an epic story, all coming together, fighting to overcome this preacher."
As she told me more about the expansive nature of the show, with its multitude of elements, including poetic text, film, dance, local instrumental trio Amargosa, handmade masks and props that are put to multiple use, it all started sounding like more than simply theater. I found myself thinking of heroic multimedia extravaganzas by Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley and Rachel Rosenthal, whose work pushes beyond even experimental theater into that once-controversial yet now often venerated realm of "performance art."
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines performance art as "a nontraditional art form often with political or topical themes that typically features a live presentation to an audience ... and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance or painting."
Though Quinn considers "This is the Place of Parting" to fit squarely under the aegis of theater, the creative courage of the piece and the collective expertise of its players push it beyond those parameters. A dozen accomplished actors, writers, techies, choreographers and theatrical artists bring an astounding range of professional experience to the stage, from Dell'Arte International, the Shakespeare Theater of D.C. and classical ballet training to photography, multimedia design and circus arts, placing GUTWorks in the domain of great performance art, in its purest, most delightfully unconventional and omni-sensorial form.
I suppose it's a case of semantics, but as someone who's always believed that performance art, when done well, allows audience members to flex their intellect and observational skills in fresh, invigorating ways, I think it behooves an eclectic company like this to shine a bright light on the art of the work itself — the distinct artistry within the performance.
Performance art at its best is simply metatheater, reaching beyond the scope of the theatrical realm by orchestrating an experience that's bigger than the stage, the actors, the audience and the two hours they spend together while the lights are down. When realized with true vision and expertise, performance art not only tears down that old fourth wall, but sends everyone home with a slightly altered perspective on the world, on themselves and each other.
Some of the earliest performance art I ever saw was Anderson's "United States," Ashley's "Atalanta (Acts of God)" and Monk's "Dolmen Music" in the mid-1980s when lesser talents with big hair and egos to match managed to malign the art form. Unfortunately, some vestiges of misguided attempts at artytainment, which involved everything from abysmal acting to novice opera to curious usages of canned fruit, seem to remain even to the point of artists themselves wishing to distance themselves from the term.
The good news is simply that high-caliber, sophisticated works by unconventional companies like GUTWorks are serving to redefine both theater and performance art, devising an entirely new brand of live drama. It is performance and it is art, blending fearless writing, skilled thespians, inventive visuals and pioneering music into one complex, visionary feast comprised of various characters, concepts, images and sounds.
The flow of "This is the Place of Parting" is, in and of itself, original.
"It starts out with two-minute film," Quinn explains, "which is the Rosebud of the story. The author is writing about the end of the world and, in doing so, he comes to a near-death experience and is battling with his own decisions about finding meaning in his life. The rest of the play is in his mind, with a preacher, a zookeeper saving the last lion on planet and a young grieving mother, all characters who help him realize he should live. It's a celebration of the human experience and a lot of it is up for interpretation, like believing that the film really is Africa extending out 1,000 miles."
Quinn's powerful one-woman stage show, "Vamping," which she performed in New York last year, showcased her remarkable acting prowess as she told the story of her grandmother's battle with dementia, and if that is any indication, this new production will deliver on its promise that "On the edge between life and death, humanity's quest for meaning begins …"
Enthused not only about having brought GUTWorks itself to Southern Vermont, but the thematic pertinence and impact of "This is the Place of Parting," Quinn attests that its amalgam of elements and messages will compel audience members to explore difficult but important questions.
"It's a celebration of the human experience," she avows, "and asks how we each find meaning in our lives. How do people interpret faith and if there is no God, then what? What keeps us ticking? It doesn't make a decision, but just rejoices that we're all alive."
In addition to the Aug. 29 performance at the Bellows Falls Opera House, "This is the Place of Parting" will play at the New England Youth Theater on Sept. 3 and the Vermont Academy in Saxtons River on Sept. 4.
Note to readers: As I have other journalistic ventures under way, I need to make the Sover Scene bi-weekly going forward, but will still have my finger on the arts and culture pulse, so please look for it every other Thursday starting today. Thank you for being such devoted readers and keep your comments coming!