BIOBOXES: Artifacting Human Experience
(This is Jerry's review of the original production from last January.)
BIOBOXES blew my brain wide open. I go to plays over a hundred times a year yet it’s not often that I feel I’ve seen something that has made me think really fundamentally about how theatre works or what “theatre” ultimately might be. This was one of those rare shows.
Here’s the concept: Six actors, fluently bilingual in English and a second language, has each interviewed an immigrant to Canada. Using the immigrant’s own words, the actor distilled a seven-minute monologue which he or she performs with their head inside a rectangular box. The box is the “stage,” each one designed by the individual actor. The home page of Theatre Replacement’s website has pictures of all six sets with the actors inside them.
The audience is limited to six people an hour. For the performance, the actor calls your name and you sit in a chair. The actor covers you with a sheet, then takes his or her seat directly facing you, puts his or her head inside the box, and the play begins. Your knees are close enough to touch. Your faces are maybe two feet away from each other. You are a privileged but also a captive audience. When the seven-minute play is done, the actor lets you out, he or she resets for the next audience, and another actor calls your name.
These are not just monologues but full-scale small-scale plays complete with production values. Each design is unique. Marco Soriano speaks partially from behind a paper “curtain” that scrolls horizontally, scenes of Italy painted on it. Una Memisevic evokes the Serbia of her nurse character with her accent alone; her head fully occupies an empty space. Anita Rochon’s Frenchman speaks from an elaborately decorated room, his young son represented by an egg on a shelf. The room of Donna Soares’ Chinese-Canadian girl whose beloved brother has returned to Hong King is a draped piece of black material. Paul Ternes’ German speaks from behind a styrofoam wall which he breaks through when the Berlin Wall falls. We watch him partly on a tiny screen as he videotapes himself. And Cindy Mochizuki’s elaborate set for her Japanese photographer includes flying birds, ghosts, and tiny little sculptures.
The actor controls lighting, sound effects, and the movement of set pieces as well as his or her own vocal modulations and facial expressions, which naturally loom very large at such close quarters. The cliché about how in an intimate theatre with the audience close up the actor can’t cheat was never truer than here.
There’s a good deal of audience interaction, though it varies from play to play. I was invited to write in a notebook and had my picture taken, I lit incense and received a bob bon. And the audience controls the language. At any point, you’re told, you can move a little wooden arrow to indicate to the actor whether he/she should continue in English or switch to the other language: Italian, Serbo-Croatian, French, Mandarin, German, Japanese. Every actor is remarkably fluent.
But as audience, you’re also in the spotlight. You’re not sitting in the dark, anonymous and safe. The actor, close enough to smell your breath, is looking you right in the eyes. It’s hard not to feel self-conscious. You definitely feel something of what it feels like to be the actor. You feel the responsibility.
You are also acutely aware of the liveness of live theatre, the living body of the actor sharing that tiny space with your own bodily presence. Ironically, I also became aware of how much of the audience experience is a shared, communal one. At comic moments when I laughed, or wanted to, I missed having other audience members laugh with me. It was like watching a movie home alone on DVD rather than in a full theatre.
I loved this show, every minute of every wonderful performance, every detail of its theatricality, and its unique overriding concept. I didn’t learn much about cultural diversity or the Canadian immigrant experience, though—I was much too immersed in the medium to pay much attention to the messages. Kudos to Theatre Replacement producer/directors Maiko Bae Yamamoto and James Long, to each of the six very fine actors, and to the PuSh Festival for showcasing a piece of theatre that really does push your playgoing brain into another dimension.
Note that the show runs from 4-7 pm through Sunday only, and because it can accommodate only tiny audiences reservations are a must. If you can’t afford all six plays, you can see one or more at only $5 each. Don’t miss it.