Four dancers, a cellist, and a pianist walk into the Sprenger Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. What’s the punch line? Probably not what you’d expect. Or at least not what I was expecting—in the best way possible—when I entered the theater for The Naked Stark’s opening performance of The Importance of Normal.
The Philly-based company originally premiered this piece at the First Person Arts Festival RAW in 2013, and has clearly continued to put a lot of love and work into it since then. In addition to dancing, Katherine Kiefer Stark choreographed, directed, and designed and constructed the set for this quietly powerful performance.
From the moment you enter the theater, you’re engaged in the piece. The performers are all on stage and audience members are encouraged to walk around the performance area, which is billed as an “installation in progress.” Dancers Meredith Stapleton, Grace Stern, and Beau Hancock move without acknowledging the audience’s presence, while cellist Ajibola Rivers and pianist Konnie Stark sit at their instruments and occasionally providing sounds. Audience members are asked as they walk in what they’re hoping to find during the performance.
The story itself follows the life of an unnamed “girl-woman” as she struggles against life’s limitations, disappointments, and rejections and the ever-present yet unattainable specter of Normal. The first two pieces—in which the girl-woman dances within a box that is made (with the audience’s help) increasingly smaller, and in which she dances with her young husband, somehow always managing to be underneath him and holding him up no matter how she tries to shift her position—in particular are wildly engaging and affecting.
The Importance of Normal
Choreographed by Katherine Kiefer Stark
Details and tickets
The Naked Stark does a brilliant job of transforming the cavernous Sprenger into an intimate venue. Paul Stern’s sound design is unsettling at times in the best way and Leigh A Mumford’s lighting gracefully highlights the work without ever distracting from it. The simple set of two chairs, two half-columns, and a pad of giant notepaper is sparse, but nonetheless gives these talented performers plenty to work with and against.
The phrase “this show is perfectly suited for Fringe” is probably a cliché at this point, but The Importance of Normal is truly a great example of the material matching the format. The piece feels weird and experimental but also relatable and beautiful, and the smaller audience size and barebones design in this case were boons to the production rather than negatives. Did I walk away knowing why Normal is important? No. But I did leave feeling that I was totally okay leaving her behind and striking out on my own.
The Importance of Normal . Choreographer: Katherine Kiefer Stark . Composer: Paul Stern . Chief Creative Mind: Katherine Kiefer Stark . Director: Katherine Kiefer Stark . Featuring: Meredith Stapleton, Beau Hancock, Grace Stern, Konnie Stark, Katherine Kiefer Stark .