Saturday before last I headed out to Cutting Ball Theater for Tontlawald (The Ghost Forest). I got off at the Powell Street BART stop and walked through the Westfield Mall for a while. Normally I would avoid any mall, even an allegedly upscale one like the Westfield, on a Saturday night, but it's right there, and I had some time to kill before the theater opened. This might have been a miscalculation on my part, since the crackheads who gather in the vicinity of the Exit Stage Left generally ignore the random passers-by and leave them plenty of sidewalk space, whereas the shop-heads in the mall reminded me once again that I am apparently the only remaining person who will move out of the way for other people so that we don't collide (and I’m not even talking about those idiots who stroll straight on, their eyes glued to their stupid little electronic toys).
I had been wondering recently if I had been taking Cutting Ball a bit for granted – I’ve been going to their shows for almost their entire decade-plus of existence, and you get used to a certain level of things. But I was talking to NA, a theater habitué who hadn’t been to Cutting Ball much but who had gone to Pelleas and Melisande, and she was raving about how much the company had done in such a small space and how inventively and satisfyingly everything had been staged, and I thought, yes – her remark had brought me into a sudden state of awareness of something I already knew but had – not exactly forgotten, but had not kept fresh in my consciousness.
It all comes back to mindfulness, and awareness of the moment – walking so that you don’t collide with others, appreciating what you see: noticing. I know everyone talks about living in the moment blah blah blah but it’s actually a tricky thing, since the moment so often is one you wish would pass, which is an inevitable response but maybe not the best one possible. What do you notice? What do you dwell on (or in)? What do you remember? The days might drag but the years fly.
Live performance is to me a paradigm of the “awareness issue” and of how we try to live in the world – after the trouble and time and expense, among often uncomprehending and downright rude and stupid audiences, you still have the artists, giving of their essence to you. I’m speaking generally of the audience here; the full house for Tontlawald the night I went was completely silent and attentive, except for one idiot woman who kept giggling ostentatiously towards the end, apparently to show everyone that she “got it,” whatever "it" was. There's always someone who feels the need to giggle like that.
We were encouraged to read the original story beforehand. It took up only a half-page in the program, but I decided not to, since it’s fairly rare for me to see something where I don’t already know everything that’s going to happen. The play happens in a fragmentary and refracted way (though it was always clear to me what was going on). Oddly one effect of this fragmentation is that while you watch it in the moment you also feel as if you’re remembering the performance – individual moments spring out with dreamlike vividness the way they would when you thought about the performance later. These striking moments are achieved with the simplest effects, as when the protagonist, a girl named Lona, seems to walk on air – the actress is on one stool and then steps onto a second one while an actor moves the first stool in front of the second one, so that she continues to move smoothly from one to the other. (This was the moment that inexplicably produced giggles from that one person.)
Lona has a father, and a cruel stepmother, from whom she finds refuge in the forbidden Tontlawald – the ghost forest, an eerie realm, a place of the unearthly, of the imagination. It’s a place of make-believe and of awareness. It’s body, it’s breath, it’s theater. The back of the performing space is a wavy lattice of gleaming white ribbon (a portion of which is used to simple and stunning effect at the end, draped around Lona to effect her transformation into a bird). A similar white pattern is painted on the black floor. We also are enmeshed in the Tontlawald.
The play was co-directed by Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino. Laura Arrington did the movement, and Eugenie Chan wrote the text. I had not much liked Chan’s earlier work for Cutting Ball, but I loved her spare, evocative, and poetic script for this one. There is much beautiful and natural singing, with music that is familiar, or just sounds familiar – a snatch of the Magic Flute, old jazz songs. (It’s funny how even a passing lyrical “daddy-o” becomes resonant in the setting of this fairy-tale family.) There is occasional use of amplification, very deliberately done to distort or change the voices – it’s mindful amplification, which is very different from what we get in a lot of theater these days (yes, I’m thinking of the Berkeley Rep/Kneehigh Wild Bride – Tontlawald is what the Wild Bride should have been). One reason I prefer unamplified voices is that to me performing is very much about the body and what it can do unaided – I mean, I recognize that driving cars fast around a racetrack takes a lot of skill, but I don’t find it at all interesting to watch, the way I would humans or even horses racing around a track. Bodies even became musical instruments, as when the men stripped off their shirts and provided music by drumming on their chests and thighs. Like the rest of the performance, it was both very primitive and very sophisticated.
The whole ensemble is top-notch: Rebecca Frank, Sam Gibbs, Cindy Im, Marilet Martinez, Wiley Naman Strasser, Meg O’Connor, Liz Wand – and I particularly liked the dead-eyed nuance Madeline H.D. Brown brought to the stepmother.
Coincidentally, a few days before going to the performance I had been reading about the theories of the postwar Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski – basically, he thought that since theater could not compete with the spectacle and realism of the movies, it should move in the opposite direction: towards directness, simplicity, the use of the actor’s bodies (he expressed this as “poor” theater – theater stripped down to its essentials). I say that this was a coincidence since it turned out that Tontlawald was inspired by Grotowski’s theories. There are moments that reminded me of other avant-garde theater works – I thought of Beckett’s Not I, and the Stein/Thomson 4 Saints in 3 Acts, and suchlike – but Tontlawald feels like a coherent and moving whole, not at all like a compendium of art-house tricks. I was reminded not only of the long range of avant-garde theater, but of what exciting, exhilarating fun it can be. “That was certainly an experience,” I heard one audience member say at the end of the hour. It sure was.
Tontlawald runs through 11 March, though I hope it gets extended. It's a stunning performance. Get tickets here.