The Life & Literature Performance Series was born from Professor Heather Carver’s idea of bringing intimate classroom-style performances to a theater.
This year’s free show, the 11th in the annual series that begins this theater season, follows Carver’s vision.
The student-created show was hosted at the Corner Playhouse, pulling the audience taut against the stage, with viewers resting merely a few feet from the performers. I’ll admit that, sitting among about 60 spectators, I was expecting a typical mish-mosh of melodramatic, snooze-inducing, student-borne work — something that veers from the pamphlet’s promise of “cutting-edge performance work from MU’s theater.”
Boy, was I wrong.
Emilie Sabath, an MU alumna who’s also an internationally-screened filmmaker, kicked off the show with her original video “ISLA.” The movie is a somewhat confusing depiction of the relationship between a grieving woman and a boy, something that Sabath explains after her short piece ends. The clip is equal parts thoughtful and creative, a theme that resonates for the duration of the show which, in total, runs a hair longer than an hour and 20 minutes.
Seven student performances come after Sabath, four of which are adaptations of other writers’ works.
In these performances, the technical aspect of the show is simple and purposeful, an aid to the classroom-style thinking behind the series. Stage lights carry the audience through the color spectrum while relevant music bridges segments of the show. The wardrobe is also modest, allowing the show’s success to heavily rely upon the acting itself, which doesn’t disappoint.
Believable, self-aware actors support the variety of topics showcased during the show, topics that range from regaining a sliver of a dream (Sarah Senff’s “Lament”) to combatting loss (Natalie McCabe’s excerpt of Tom Murphy’s “The Sanctuary Lamp”).
At times, the rapid-fire setup of the productions takes away from the performances themselves, as deep plots must be hashed out in a few sentences, hurting the believability and interest in them.
This doesn’t occur in the highlight of series, which is easily Melissa Jackson Burns’ original “Black Bird,” a hilarious take on obesity that scintillates between comedy and drama. Burns stands on stage and mimics both a bird and a musician, while effortlessly captivating the audience in a piece that could easily be an entire show of its own.
The show fittingly concludes with “Tug of War,” an unusual yet comedic performance by a pair of brothers who seek to share a tale from their African background. The brothers banter throughout the piece in a satire of both America and stereotypical African lore. Their performance is the most audience-oriented, as it draws from spectators to answer questions, sing and even dance with them on stage.
But that’s when things get weird.
The brothers tell the story of a man who performs his toxic “biological function” (i.e. shitting) outdoors because no toilets exist in the time of the fable. He continues to perform his toxic function, oscillating between two towns that quarrel about the feces in their shrubs.
The twist comes when the man needs to clean himself, and he does so on some sort of building. The man stumbles away, and the two brothers seek to find him by following a trail of blood. They scour frantically, approaching the audience.
That’s when I, an unsuspecting onlooker, am dragged onto the stage, notebook in hand, as the accused. The brothers quickly whisk me back to my seat, leaving me confused after the decisive paradigm of the performance.
The piece ends with the brothers walking off the stage, hand in hand.
I’m not sure what the purpose of the bizarre story was, but the audience loved it. The audience was dragged through the broken-down fourth wall and pulled into the fun and the passion of the show, and, really, that’s what a good performance should do.
MOVE gives Life & Literature 4 out of 5 stars.