You have one shoe box and twenty minutes until your house burns to the ground. What do you save? In Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Signature Theatre asks not only what art is worth saving, but also which memories, beliefs, and people.
Heather McDonald’s play, developed and produced for its world premiere by Signature Theatre, defines “masterpiece” as dependent on personal experience. Although the play makes reference to famous paintings by Rembrandt and other celebrated artists, its most poignant moments are its most personal, such as when a character clings to a childhood drawing or claws for scribbled words on a scrap of paper.
Masterpieces opens with a Ted Talk-style lecture from art conservator Layla, who presents her U.N.-commissioned project to determine which works of art to save for posterity amid humanity’s fragile future. 100 years of war have passed, in which “mourning birds” have forgotten how to fly, multiple floods have come and gone, weather patterns have disrupted, and much of humanity has died. Amidst the chaos, a rhino has gotten loose in an art museum. Layla relates all of this while wearing a crisp blouse, pressed pants, and heels.
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
closes April 7, 2019
Details and tickets
Then, abruptly, the earth quakes, and Layla is bleeding, her bare feet soiled and curled in pain, her clothing ripped and stained, as she shrieks, chained to a wall. The shift is never explained as a jump forward or backwards in time, or merely as a device for audience engagement. But the remainder of the play will take place in a dim, dirty room of the destroyed art museum.
The set, rubbled with beheaded statues and exposed wires, is perfection. Scenic designer James Kronzer places each scrap of wreckage with care, from the blood-or-rust-stained slabs of concrete to precarious cairns teetering atop each flat surface. Each scene is complemented by deft lighting and expert sound design. Although we never venture beyond the room, rumbles of explosions and footfalls of the errant rhino evoke a world tumbling through chaos.
To piece together this world’s history, the audience relies on the perspectives of three survivors from opposing sides: the captive, Tanya (Holly Twyford); the captor, Mitra (Felicia Curry); and the nurse, Nadia (Yesenia Iglesias). A warning to the faint of heart: do not expect an apocalypse story told by women to be any less brutal. Hardened by war and personal loss, they inflict vengeful violence upon one another, adeptly choreographed by Robb Hunter, and the resulting injuries are extremely convincing. Each character compels through their movement and vocal work, but as Tanya, Holly Twyford is stunning. Her mixture of grief, irony, and inspiration saturates every word and posture.
Despite Nadia Tass’ strong instincts for circulating energy within cramped spaces, the production lags in its third act. As the action slows down, the number of tangential stories told by characters ramps up, and the audience starts to lose focus. In contrast to the production’s opening address, which solicits an act of audience participation, the speeches in act three feel like history lessons that drone or non-sequiturs that befuddle. As dialogue begins to evoke déjà vu from the first act, the audience wonders in vain about the purpose of the bookend script. The potential of several devices feels unfulfilled: the audience is teased with the promise of a story about the cairns, then shortchanged; they are given three props, but one is never mentioned.
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While the core story finds its home in the disarray of the room, other elements of the production feel crowded. Sometimes projection-based commentary on border disputes and tribalism occlude prop-based parallels to religious mythology, which stifle insights on the healing power of art.
But when the play gives itself room to breathe, the production exhales deeply. Iconic images—such as rainstorm gifts, dancing feathers, and a curious gaze by a mystical stranger—brush away the ugliness of decay to reveal beauty.
The final minutes of Masterpieces rank among the most breathtaking I have experienced in theatre. Defying the weight of probable doom, we are treated to one moment of lightness, in which every element of the production unites. Suspended in theatrical magic, thoughts cannot help but drift to all the beauty in life that must be saved.
This restorative moment is truly a masterpiece.
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Heather McDonald. Directed by Nadia Tass. Cast: Holly Twyford as Layla. Felicia Curry as Mitra. Yesenia Iglesias as Nadia. Creative: Scenic Design by James Kronzer. Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani. Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard. Sound Design and Original Music by James Bigbee Garver. Projection Design by Zachary G. Borovay. Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter. Casting by Kelly Crandall d’Amboise. Assistant Director Dani Stoller. Production Assistant Allison Poms. Production Stage Manager Ben Walsh. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Kate Colwell.