It’s taco night in the Source rehearsal studio. As three strangers sit down to dinner, their similar anxieties bring them into a shared space that starts to feel like home. With its rich details, The Pressure Cooker is like a magic painting, inviting audience members to step inside and contemplate a single, shared moment.
Matched up by the Source Festival’s Artistic Blind Dates program, three artists who had never met before were introduced and given six months to devise a work within the theme “Rites of Passage.” For The Pressure Cooker, Daters Hayley Cutler (Choreographer), Liz Maestri (Playwright), and Nguyên Nguyen (Musician/Visual Artist), turn the space into a gallery, with visual art by all three on the walls.
As the performance begins, the artists themselves form a still life, frozen at a fully-stocked dinner table in a culinary tableau. Audiences are encouraged to “explore the gallery.” (Yes, the food is real.) Nat King Cole’s “The Frim Fram Sauce” plays overhead.
After a few moments, the diners roar to life, with each spouting a monologue about his or her individual fears and desires, not listening to the others at the table. At Nguyen’s eventual urging, however, they try taking turns. The resulting exchange is touching: the characters’ mutual ridicule changes to understanding as they listen to each other’s anxieties about remembering and forgetting. Eventually, they are even able to take each other’s places at the table.
The Pressure Cooker mixes acting with dance, music, and visual art. At the beginning, the performers express themselves verbally, sharing their reactions to various paintings. The conversation grows increasingly personal, though. At a climactic point, Cutler’s character compares her house to a pressure cooker, jumping up from the table and confessing, “For 26 years, I’ve been roasting!”
When words fail entirely, fear and frustration manifest in a jerky, silent dance performed by all three performers together, at an increasingly fast pace. At a moment of empathy, the characters join hands and sing a hymn. Meanwhile, specific fears haunting one character threaten to overwhelm her at any moment, depicted in an animation by Nguyen playing on loop on a TV in the corner. This mix of styles showcases each medium’s expressive strengths, leading to a nuanced and rich portrayal of the unvoiced emotions beneath the surface of conversation.
However, at a few points, the piece proves inaccessible. The relationship between the characters is abstract and at times difficult to understand (who exactly they are, how they came to be eating dinner together, and who a mysterious fourth plate belongs to, are never satisfactorily explained). At other points, the script strains a bit too hard towards profundity, such as when Cutler confesses that rather than cats or collectibles, she intends to fill her house with memories. These difficulties, however, are outnumbered by memorably simple and touching moments, as when Maestri’s contemplation of a Western landscape makes her feel guilty about how much easier it is to cross the Rockies now, with the help of technology, than it was for the Pioneers.
Overall, The Pressure Cooker provides an apt depiction of the Artistic Blind Dates process itself: three strangers sit down to dinner, and once they figure out how to speak each other’s languages, they find that they have a lot to talk about.
Source Festival runs thru July 1, 2012 at Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
The Pressure Cooker
Created & Performed by Hayley Cutler (Choreographer), Liz Maestri (Playwright), Nguyên Nguy?n (Musician/Visual Artist)
Produced by Source Festival
Reviewed by Robert Duffley
Running Time: 30 minutes followed by a 15-minute talkback