‘Very Still & Hard to See’ at Rorschach Theatre Company

Very Still & Hard to See is neither quiet nor a challenge to perceive. Its aural and optical pleasures are bountiful. For this production of Steve Yockey’s cycle of supernatural short plays, directed with keen ingenuity by Randy Baker, Rorschach Theatre has outdone itself in the stage-arts department—beginning with one of the most original uses of the Lang Theatre one is ever likely to see there again.

. Ryan Tumulty, Amanda Forstrom, Farrell Parker, Colin Smith, Jennifer Hopkins, Kari Ginsberg, and Peter Finnegan. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Ryan Tumulty, Amanda Forstrom, Farrell Parker, Colin Smith, Jennifer
Hopkins, Kari Ginsberg, and Peter Finnegan. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This proscenium theater upstairs at Atlas Performing Arts Center has literally been turned inside out. And our discombobulation begins even before we enter. A sign in the lobby says not to use the staircase (because there has been some unidentified accident) but to wait for the elevator. Dutifully we do as we’re told. When its doors glide open, we are greeted by a maybe-not-human uniformed operator who takes us to some dark floor where two maybe-deceased spirits enter and stand among us, which is either comically creepy or creepily comic. What the heck is going on here?

Eventually we disembark and find ourselves…on stage. Our seats face the house. Looking out at the ominously dark auditorium we see the seats there are eerily covered by vast swaths of gauze. Meanwhile here and there more ghoulish specters appear—one laughing, then weeping; one weirdly lurking. Meanwhile the lighting keeps shifting for no reason underscored by unsettling seascapey sounds. Between where we sit and the Lang auditorium are some angular platforms with overturned pieces of furniture. And centerstage on a painted floor lies what may or may not be a corpse.

Where the heck are we? We have lost our bearings already and the show has yet to begin.

There are seven vignette-ish scenes plus a prolog and epilog. The eleven cast members sometimes appear as named characters in elusively plotted and loosely linked playlets, and sometimes they wear white masks and appear as background factors and apparitions. (A note from the playwright suggests he was inspired by preternatural creatures, spiritual essences, and invisible familiars found in Japanese folklore and mythology.)

There is a sort of overarching story line. The play takes place in and underneath a grand hotel by the sea. (The scrim-draped seating in the distance evokes undulating ocean waves, and the effect never stops being uncanny.)  Characters come and go in mini episodes in hotel rooms above, but there is evil down below, for this is truly a haute hell.

One of the story lines centers on the architect of the hotel, whose dark past is revealed, and all the characters’ various story lines dead-end in a wonderfully lit and choreographed scene that achieves onstage the wordless visual fascination of slo-mo blowups on film. Another knockout scene with no words was a dance between two women in evening gowns who had met on a blind date.

Kari Ginsburg & Farrell Parker. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Kari Ginsburg & Farrell Parker. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The cast handled the play’s abrupt shifts of reality and interruptions of reason with panache and dispatch. Though the program gave all the actors character names, it was a little hard to tell who was who as individuals. Yet the entire ensemble (Colin Smith, Yasmin Tuazon, James Finley, Ryan Tumulty, Amanda Forstrom, Kari Ginsburg, Peter Finnegan, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Farrell Parker, Shravan Amin, and Sarah Taurchini) was consistently strong.

For the striking stage arts on display, credit goes to Scenic Designer Brian Gillick, Lighting Designer Robbie Hayes, and Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. (whose swingy-jazz musical intervals between scenes were a delight). And Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny evocatively clothed characters who were only intermittently real.

Amanda Forstrom, Ryan Tumulty, Yasmin Tuazon, Peter Finnegan, Farrell Parker, and Kari Ginsberg. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Amanda Forstrom, Ryan Tumulty, Yasmin Tuazon, Peter Finnegan, Farrell
Parker, and Kari Ginsberg. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Depending on your taste for surreal story structure, non sequitur text, and inscrutable characters, you may or may not get back the bearings you lost when you first entered the theater. Yockey’s script is not big on narrative navigation cues and is often too random to be engaging. Yet in the fearless hands of the Rorschach crew, the text Yockey has inscribed as if in otherworldly ether has inspired a spectacularly grabby production and mesmerizing miseenscène.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission..

Very Still & Hard to See plays through May 20, 2015, at Rorschach Theatre performing at Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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