Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
There are no speeches declaring women superior for this life-affirming duty, or degrading men for past follies or inadequacies. It is just a given that women, and women alone, are responsible for ensuring a renewal of the human spirit. The only evidence of the continued presence of men at all is when a character notes that a birth has occurredassuming, of course, that 600 years hence giving birth to a child still requires some form of male participant.
Six characters make up this group of women, who call are called Seekers, a title that seems to embody wisdom, courage and commitment. We meet Lila, Greer, Nova and Vinka. Lila is youthful, exuberantly active and graceful, her movements having a balletic quality. Greer is well grounded, attuned to others' fears and desires, but practical in considering what comes next. Nova is optimistic, believing that their work as Seekers will eventually bear fruit. She also has the patience to persevere, knowing that their mission will extend beyond their own lifetimes. Vinka projects deep mysticism, but it weighs heavily on her; she is hounded by old demons, and haunted by nightmares.
This foursome reconnects with Bea, a young woman who is blind but with an instinctive sense that enables her to track with precision. Bea's sister Seeker Gale gave her life in the pursuit of their mission. They speak with reverence, their heads bowed, when Seeker Gale's name is mentioned. Bea introduces them to Clementine, who proves herself worth of joining their ranks as a Seeker. One of Clementine's gifts is knowledge of the seaor, as they know it, the Great Aqua. A map that Nova possesses reveals that their journey requires crossing the Great Aqua, and so newly conferred Seeker Clementine becomes essential to their mission.
Early on, behind white drapes hung from ceiling to floor at the rear of the stage, a shadow-lit pantomime depicts the hunt. Lila is successful at slaying a beast, and calls out in jubilation "We eat!" The group moves by running, both to avoid dangers along the way and to hasten their progress, sleeping when darkness overtakes them. They travel from village to village sharing shards of knowledge from the past and seeking new a new form of civil society. Chanting in unison, they describe the monotonous simplicity of their days: "Run ... stop ... eat ... run ... stop ... sleep ..." They take inspiration from four constellations based on great women of legendHelen, Amelia, Sacajawea and Harrietthe figures of their mythology. In the course of the play, which runs 70 minutes, they celebrate victories and suffer losses, often around a campfire that seems to warm both body and spirit.
Numerous ritualized gestures and phrases have been invented, replacing those from the past, as shortcuts to the expression of feelings, of sealing commitments, or marking life passages. One particularly fascinating scene is a disagreement between Nova and Vinka as to whether to settle in for the night or journey on. The means of allowing each member of the group to voice her opinion, of indicating her choice, and of allowing for a decision in favor of the majority while saving face for the dissenters, is a riveting sequence.
600 Years takes place on a bare stage, except for several structures that appear to be slim tree branches bound together by rough twine, forming three-dimensional frames of irregular shapes. These are moved about to suggest various settings, and in the end, for a unified tableau that marks a high point of the narrative arc. The open space is well utilized to allow a great deal of physical movement, which is a key element in telling the story. The use of shadow images behind the white drapes dramatically expands the scope of the narrative. Those same drapes also become the sail of a ship and the clouds of a storm. A constant percussive soundtrack composed and performed by Megan Campbell Lagas from a perch on one corner of the stage gives the work a pulsating drive.
There is so much to commend 600 Years that I am sorry to report that what it lacks is relatable language. Yes, the physical movement, visual displays, invented gestures and rituals, and pulsating percussive underscore make for highly watchable theater. However, the dialogue sounds strained though a filter that only allows grand eloquence to pass, which undermines the human-ness of these estimable women who are actually trying to rekindle human-ness in the world. For example, in the middle of the night a character proclaims, "I can't sleep. The night is long and deep," to which another replies, "The night is when we cling to what haunts us, or a distant land we once knew." This does not sound like real people speaking, but like proclamations from figures in a pageant. The language repeatedly undermines the story, putting it at a remove from anything that real peoplelike ourselvesmight experience.
Director Amber Bjork has done wonderful work keeping the production in motion, integrating the shadow projections into the narrative, and creating some striking stage imagery. These do much more to make 600 Years compelling theater than does the dialogue. The six actresses all do fine work, especially with the physical representation of the story. Kristina Fjellman as Nova and Michelle De Joya as Lila particularly stand out and come closest to creating whole, relatable people. Heather Stone effectively portrays the angst that wracks Vinka, but with the narrative not offering clear windows into the source of her turmoil, she is of a single palette.
I found 600 Years highly watchable, and it stimulated me to think about how a post-apocalypse reconstruction of a human society might play out. While the specific vision of that reconstruction depicted in this play does not answer any questions, it certainly raises some. That can be reward enough for audiences who enjoy visually striking theater that is a springboard to challenging questions and provocative ideas, without also requiring well-wrought plot and dialogue.
600 Years continues until September 18, 2016. It is produced by Sandbox Theatre as an Art Share production at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $24.00, students with ID - $18.00, free for Art Share members. For information or tickets, call 612-340-0155 or visit sandboxtheatreonline.com.
Created by the ensemble; Director: Amber Bjork; Project Lead: Tim Donahue; Music Composition and Performance: Megan Campbell Lagas; Scenic Design, Props and Puppets: Derek Lee Miller; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Merritt Rodriguez; Stage Manager: Andre Johnson, Jr.
Cast: Michelle De Joya (Lila), Evelyn Digirolamo (Bea), Kristina Fjellman (Nova), Ashawnti Ford (Clementine), Danielle Siver (Greer), Heather Stone (Vinka)