Transmission, the newest and final offering from this iteration of the playwriting collective The Welders, tests my inherent resistance to superlatives. But the problem with resisting the “mosts,” “leasts,” and “-ests” of the world is that sometimes a show deserves them, and Gwydion Suilebhan certainly deserves superlatives for his superlative…thing.
I call the show a thing because my admittedly incomplete theatrical vocabulary seems insufficient to find an appropriate mononym for it. In an evening’s entertainment divided into 3 portions, the longest and most central part is the first: an extended and immersive monologue referred to internally in the piece as a “sermon,” but feels more like a TED talk held in your grandmother’s parlor.
Even though the sermon is more a snazzy lecture on storytelling than story itself, its performance and power marks it as the most recognizably theatrical and the section of the night most easily packaged and predicted. In quite literally the comfiest seating I have ever experienced in a theater, the Atlas Lab Theatre II is arranged in the round, but as a 30’s family room: snug, berugged and fitted with radios, bowls of candies and velvety armchairs sans sweaty plastic covers.
Suilebhan stars in the work himself, normally an inauspicious omen for playwrights not named Miranda. But he pulls off both the parent-ly soothing explanations of children’s stories and the darkness of explicating their sinister perversions, all while looking sharp in Deb Sivigny’s classic earth-toned vest ensemble. I’d love to see what some of our truly great local monologists like Jim Jorgensen, Sarah Marshall or Frank Britton could do with this piece, but Suilebhan is solid and natural in his role.
Design is the most key, and also most stunning, element of this production. Jacy Barber’s scenic and prop design has some of the most masterful touches I’ve seen, especially in an immersive show. It would be a most heinous oversight if Eric Shimelonis didn’t get at least a Helen Hayes nomination for his sound design, where he proves the craft as more than mixing music and finding the right doorbell noise. This production wouldn’t work without sound and wouldn’t be nearly as lovely without Shimelonis’ design. Colin K Bills proves himself here, yet again, to be the best lighting designer in the DC area, which is a sentence I just have to get used to typing.
The meat of the monologue is more sinister than comforting, but Transmission captures attention, delighting with spectacle, rhythm and meta-story. Suilebhan paints an abstract picture of stories as fragmentary mind viruses, drawing on neurobiology for evidence, his audience’s experience as story receivers for anecdotes, and a smattering of pop psychology.
Transmission takes its title from its subject, which is how stories transfer from person to person, molding minds and morphing in their transmission. This lecture lacks an easy moral, not atypical of contemporary new work that loves to fade to black in silent, fervent hope that the audience will spontaneously explode into discussion in the lobby.
Remember when I called this play “immersive and extended?” That’s this next part, a potentially scary one that might turn you off to Transmission. You’re going to talk to somebody. Good news for you introverts out there, you won’t have to speak in front of the group. But there will be a person who is sitting next to you, and you’ll have to talk with them like a human being. As far as requirements for immersion and engagement, this bar is low, but also tricky.
As someone who has played Four square, been a pawbearer at a cat funeral, and done the “Jump On It” over an actor statant, all in the name of being a good audience member in an immersive performance, I have the addict’s naturally high tolerance for audience participation. But perhaps because I run “talkbacks” professionally, I’ll take those weird participations any day over talking about a performance and sharing what this play made me feel. Transmission wafts near this rank brew, but ultimately avoids it, instead inviting the audience to get personal with each other semi-privately.
closes May 28, 2016
Details and tickets
But you can range from most shallow, talking about canned tuna (as one of my discussion partners did), or most serious, talking about the temptations of self-harm (as I did). Ultimately, much of your pleasure in this piece will derive from how this participatory section goes, that is to say, it’s totally unpredictable. We had a good night, with vivacious discussion and moments of profundity, but that certainly won’t be the case every night. If you plan on killing the vibe by being a withdrawn mouse, do your fellow audience members a favor and buck up. They need you.
Which is the reason that this is one of the hardest shows to rate that I’ve ever been to. Most immersive performances totally depend on your buy-in, but this one depends on it more than most. I judge plays on what I see, so that speaks highest praise for Transmission.
But what this productions does that’s so successful is creating an environment through design, diction, and smart text that makes participation a breeze. But Transmission goes beyond that ease by using participation as a tool to hint toward its own metatheatrical point, which is the most difficult task for an immersive performance. This production’s success in that integration make this my top recommendation for value on DC stages right now, and perhaps the best immersive performance I’ve had the pleasure to participate in.
Transmission by Gwydion Suilebhan. Directed by Ryan Maxwell . Featuring Gwydion Suilebhan and Jordana Fraider . Scenic and Prop Design: Jacy Barber . Experience and Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Costume Design: Deb Sivigny . Dramaturgy: Ryan Maxwell, Stephen Spotswood, and Jordana Fraider . Produced by The Welders . Reviewed by Alan Katz.