Sunday, May 15, 2011

Various trips and an outage at Blogger have prevented me from posting anything about The Seventh Sense, an intriguing theatre piece by an Armenian troupe, the National Centre for Aesthetics SMALL THEATRE, that crossed the water to play our own Charlestown Working Theater a few weeks ago.

Which may have been just as well, because I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this particular show, at least in formal terms.  Its content was clear enough - if somewhat shocking.  I'm not kidding; conceived as a "sensual meditation" on The Book of Lamentations, a book of heartfelt prayer by Armenian patron saint Gregory of Narek, the piece was that rarity in our secular age: a work grounded in straightforward, even naïve, religious feeling.  Stranger still, it was staged with every trick in the postmodern handbook, sophisticated video and projections to the fore; indeed, the production often played like a Mabou Mines version of the Book of Revelation.  Minus any of the irony or alienation, however, that are thought to be the sine qua non of those downtown-drama techniques.

Instead, The Seventh Sense was suffused with a mood lost from the modern lexicon: guilt.  And not specific guilt, but generalized, original-sin guilt - the kind downtown artists don't have; indeed, the piece was unapologetically stylized as a Pilgrim's-Progress-style quest for salvation.  Thus hellfire literally filled the stage (at left), and a video clip peered closely at the skulls in a cathedral's crypt.  In case we somehow missed the point, Death himself soon rose from a billowing maelstrom on the darkened stage floor.  You're guilty, and you're going to die - when was the last time any of our local theatres pondered that question?

I'm afraid the answers supplied by The Seventh Sense were hardly original, however, and the piece was sometimes suffused with a kind of sexual hysteria regarding the flesh while simultaneously trading in sensual tableaux to make its "spiritual" points. Occasionally Seventh even played like some breathless cable documentary about the predictions of Nostradamus. But frankly, it was still refreshing just to feel the icy wind of judgment blowing from the direction of the stage.  And while visual artist Vahan Badalyan's design concept leaned too heavily on borrowings from art history (some of them ham-handed, as in the pseudo-Pietà at top), every now and then the production seemed highly self-aware, as when performer Arsen Khachatryan attempted to literally climb into da Vinci's The Last Supper. Other gambits, like the struggling "souls" projected onto the performers, were striking and evocative, and even the looming figure of Death was surprisingly spooky and visceral. The Charlestown Working Theater is gaining a reputation as the fringe theater that somehow crams poetic wonders into its gritty space; next up for this intrepidly globe-trotting little company is a visit from Poland's Grotowski-inspired Teatr ZAR, with a performance based on a "centuries-old polyphonic funeral songs." Fans of grim religious feeling should take note.

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