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A CurtainUp Review

You are the nothing that is made to know.— A Fractal
Fractals in Survive!
(Photo by Adrienne Mackey)
Swim Pony Performing Arts is a new Philadelphia theater company aimed at producing their own original creations. Survive! is their first production as this entity. Site-specific, it is performed in the basement of the Wolf Building just north of Center City. If you can get past the company's name and go out to see them, you will find the work well put together and promising. Survive! is a kind of physical theater/ dance installation guided by narration.

It starts with the real message sent out from earth to space on Pioneer spacecraft in '72 & '73. The actors are scientists working on the mission and discoursing on the incomprehensibility of the message, before agreeing that it should be sent. Imagine that the message was received, and an unseen 10th dimensional entity, AMA arrives. AMA has created 4 humanoid constructs to physically represent itself. These aliens ("Don't say aliens, say fractals."), these fractals will assume identities.

The production setup: Audience members proceed from the entry Node with maps that at first appear incomprehensible. After a wait in an amusing terrarium area, all are gathered in the Hub, a good-sized performance space, where the disembodied voice of AMA takes over and activities take place.

At different times audience members are instructed to choose paths to outlying Nodes, to see various parts of the performance. The audience experience is shaped partially by choices they make. Choices are limited and there's a re-grouping in the Hub after each break-out. The idea of different paths is likely influenced by performances like Pay Up (Pig Iron, Live Arts 08 ) or Fatebook (New Paradise Laboratories, Live Arts 09).

Like these Live Arts performances, the piece absolutely relies on a compliant audience, whose members are willing to be controlled by a voice (a voice that is not without humor) giving directions and making assertions. The group is exhorted to do things: to enter, to answer, to experience, to leave. Luckily the audience is made up of good sports who dutifully follow instructions and go along with it, to make this thing work.

Among the performance's highlights are:
. . .A conversation shaped like a musical canon, that is, it's started off by one person and then it recurs with the other.

. . .A cute version of Schródinger's little quantum cat joke. Except it is not a cat in the closed box with a poison vial, existing in some indeterminate state until it is observed. Instead, when the box is opened and the experiment is observed, it will be either John and a fruit drink or a doctor who is poisoned.

. . . A lesson in which the audience learns to apply words to certain actions. When the labeled movements are put together in a sequence Voila! they remain as meaningless as they were before words were attached.

One thing — within this very clever show, the guiding concept of surviving seems to get lost somewhere between considering dryer sheets and confronting the idea of a universe where every single possibility has been played out.

Another thing—it tries real hard and it shows, and the delivery is overly arch. These are understandable marks of a tyronic venture. The company appears to aspire to a Pig Iron kind of sensibility. This is a good thing, and it takes seasoning before a young company arrives at the apparent ease that masks the prodigious cerebral and physical work of the big guys.

Founder and director Adrienne Mackey is a past recipient of an Independence Foundation Fellowship. She conceived this piece and collaborated on its development with writer Tim Sawicki and ensemble performers Jamie McKittrick, Ahren Potratz, David Sweeney, Bradley Wrenn and Wendy Staton (the leader's voice).

The environmental design includes intelligent lighting and admirable sound design complete with alien distortions. Lots of thought, temporary construction, and miles of plastic sheeting went into this project. Several members of the theatre community were spotted in the audience this evening. It's nice to see support for the new kid. Check it out.

Conceived and directed by Adrienne Mackey
Writing by Tim Sawicki and the creative ensemble

Cast: Jamie McKittrick, Ahren Potratz, David Sweeny, Wendy Staton, Bradley Wrenn
Set Design: Lisi Stoessel
Costume Design: Justin Jain, Jamie McKittrick
Lighting Design:  Maria Shaplin
Sound Design: Mikaal Sulaiman
June 4-20. Opening 06/04/10
Approx 75 minutes. No intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 06/12/10 performance. Underground at the Wolf Building, 340 N 12th St.
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