Memory is a home we can’t help but live in. Wandering from room to partitioned room, we reflexively replay the moments that define us in our search of what they mean for who we are. Deb Sivigny condenses that metaphor into reality into her Welders’ masterpiece Hello, My Name Is … Takoma Park’s event space cum house Rhizome DC hosts Sivigny’s tour through the memory homes of 3 Korean adoptees as they grow up in America and eventually return to the land of their birth.
Playing in the so-hot-right-now space of “immersive theater,” Hello, My Name Is … is a study in intimacy. There’s only 15 spots available per show. I say spots (not seats) because everyone rarely stays in one room for more than 10 minutes as the group is directed throughout and even outside the space in a more or less chronological journey through these characters’ lives. In that sense, this play isn’t an “explore the space” immersive experience, but rather a narrative that uses immersion as a tool for emotional impact.
The first scene sets the course for the whole evening and exemplifies Sivigny’s particular brand of beautifully obsessed immersion. The play opens with the introduction of June, age 6, to her new home in Minnesota. All 15 of the audience members wait in Aunt Rosey’s living room to throw June a welcome home surprise party.
Hello, My Name Is …
closes November 12, 2017
Details and tickets
Aunt Rosey gets a fantastic Upper Midwestern treatment by Julie Garner, who meticulously tracks the aging of the other characters as she mellows and her fashion changes. No surprise for a Deb Sivigny show since she usually works as a costume designer. Audience members can sample Aunt Rosey’s hotdish (tater tot casserole for the uninitiated). Its processed cheese smell permeates the room and makes the scary unfamiliarity of June’s introduction to her new home even more poignant.
This theme follows June, who gets a quiet yet fierce treatment from Linda Bard (who should be getting more looks for lead roles like this one), and two other adoptees, Bryan and Dana. Each of whom has a similar adoption story with radically different resulting personalities, but the same end: a return to Korea.
June returns to Korea to find a mother she doesn’t remember, while Dana, who was transported early in life but adopted much later by wealthy parents, tries to find out something of her own history. Janine Baumgardner finds strong yet subtle acting choices that navigate her privilege without making Dana hateable, especially when one of her foster siblings makes a mess of her wedding which is of course immersive and outdoors.
Bryan’s history is much darker. Moving from bad foster home to bad foster home, his spirit is broken by the time he returns to Korea. In an unusual casting, Bryan is played by Jon Jon Johnson, who is more familiar to DC audiences in “character actor” roles. Here he has a chance to play an articulate and angry sociopath who goads Dana’s foster sibling into making a drunken speech at her wedding, towing the line between victim and villain.
It isn’t just casting or big sensory inputs (like the hot dish or Dana’s wedding) that Hello My Name Is… does right. The jaw droppers are in the design details. The calendars on the wall reflect the right time for the scenes, even changing as time passes and our main characters age. The lamps feel right, and so does the CD player that provides most of the sound. When you return to a room, it is the same room, but aged in your absence. This detail makes the Rhizome space feel tiny and huge at the same time. Though the piece is far from realism (the dance elements are especially lovely), this intimacy makes those less clearly narrative portions feel real.
Even with the small house [pun intended], the maneuvering is tight, so wear good walking shoes, be gracious toward other audience members who may not be as mobile and keep your head on a swivel for the stools that stage management has deftly placed around the rooms. Unlike some immersive experiences though, this movement contains real meaning. It leaves one feeling the unsteady dance of adoptees: both in a familiar America that sometimes treats them like they don’t belong, or in an unfamiliar Korea that still calls to them. Most importantly, the movement transports the audience in time and space, even within the same room. That sense of metaphysical travel encapsulates this show’s meaning and mode: an astounding magic trick played by and with identity.
That’s exactly what the best immersive theater, and the best theater in general, does: move the audience with power and purpose. In this constructed home of memory and experience, Deb Sivigny has done exactly that. The experience of Hello, My Name Is… is precious by its rarity and irreplaceability. It is theater that can’t be told any other way. That’s nearly impossible to find anywhere, especially this well-executed, and that makes Hello, My Name Is… the best thing I’ve seen all year.
Hello, My Name Is… by Deb Sivigny. Directed by Randy Baker. Featuring Wyckham Avery, Linda Bard, Janine Baumgardner, Julie Garner, Jon Jon Johnson, Jennifer Knight, Momo Nakamura, and Emily Sucher. Set Dressing and Props Design by Patti Kalil. Costume Design by Frank Labovitz. Sound Design by Roc Lee. Lighting Design by Katie McCreary. Choreography and Movement Coaching by Yasmin Tuazon. Stage Management by Kelsey Jenkins. Produced by The Welders. Reviewed by Alan Katz.
Note Jon Jon Johnson writes for DCTS and is a professional colleague. This did not affect this review.