Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of La Bohème
These questions are raised by Stephen Epp, Nathan Keepers and Dominque Serrand, who, along with the other cast members, created Anamnesis, the latest offering from The Moving Company. The show played at The Southern Theater late in 2021 with a return visit completing its run this Sunday. Catching a performance has been somewhat of a trick as the upsurge in COVID-19 spread led to canceled performances, but perseverance will be rewarded with a thought-provoking work, in turns hilarious and perplexing, performed with utmost conviction by an ensemble that demonstrates nothing short of love for the act of creating theater.
The stage at The Southern, with its decayed-looking proscenium arch a perfect setting for this exercise in remembrance, greets us with a black plastic tarp that descends downward, then bend forward, reaching out toward the audience. A breeze seems to be blowing between the tarp and the floor. As this breeze energizes into a full-out storm, seven actors emerge, crawling or rolling out from beneath the blackness, like survivors of a long siege of bad weather. Which they are, as we all are.
They struggle together to figure out where things left off. Things feel hazy, half-formed, uncertain. The phenomena is identified as "anamnesis." It is not amnesia where all is forgotten, nor is it dementia when different realities are imagined. Anamnesis is the remembrance of things that were supposed to have happened.
That's the definition used by this work of theater. Looking into it more deeply, the word was used by Plato to describe things we know innately, without having to be taught. These are things we learn by drawing out what is within us. Not all learning occurs by anamnesis–there are things we must learn through experience, such as how to ride a bicycle or the dates of important battles. The New World Encyclopedia tells us "anamnesis appears to be restricted to a priori knowledge, that is knowledge which does not depend on experience for its justification."
And so, somehow, without having ever constructed it, the ensemble members re-construct a play they were on the threshold of creating. That play is the story of a man (Nathan Keepers) who returns to his sheltered home and aging mother (Masanari Kawahara) and her nurse (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) eighteen months after he left to do something of great urgency out in the world. What that thing was, what preceded his knowledge of the thing, and what happens after his return must also be reclaimed through anamnesis. Is there ever certainty about these things? Not in their absence, but once the actors draw out this knowledge, it becomes the truth from which move forward.
In the process of using anamnesis to reclaim what was supposed to have been, we witness various aspects of the creation of theater, in particular how actors come to understand the role they are to inhabit, how they draw out their own knowledge of a character being newly created. We watch Keepers and Baldwin Peden pace back and forth simultaneously repeating their lines, trying them out with different emphases, creating an absurd cacophony of verbiage, then see it magically transform into a beautiful scene reading that feels right-on point. It seems like evidence of the actors ability to draw on that a priori knowledge to breath life into their characters, and to do so in sync with each other.
In another segment, one actor (Stephen Epp) coaches another (Julia Valen) who is troubled by the indignity of only having two lines to speak, by reconstructing his own experience learning to create a full life for a similarly minor character, under the tutelage of a flamboyant director (Baldwin Peden again, bewigged in a Medusa-like spray of magenta hair) is both revelatory and hilarious. When this sequence recurs, with different actors playing out the same scenario, the spiraling energy embedded in this creation is astonishing.
Moving Company core members Epp, Keepers, Baldwin Peden and past collaborator Kawahara have the most going on throughout the play, and all four do exquisite work. Epp commands the stage with a grueling monologue that is more or less the story of our planet falling to the ravages of climate change. Kawahara imbues a mother declining into dementia with a veneer of alabaster calm. True to message, there are no small parts, with Eiostí Aaske, Maddie Granlund and Julia Valen doing splendid work in smaller but essential bits.
Director Dominique Serrand uses highly imaginative images and idiosyncratic movement as underpinnings to the ideas bouncing about the stage. When recreating the stalled story of the prodigal man, his mother, and the nurse, there is a sense of melodrama, of self-consciousness that underscores these are people "acting." The scenes of the ensemble's struggling to reconnect, to recall, and work through the anamnesis have a wistful feel, as if knowing that whatever they arrive at cannot truly attach to where they were eighteen months ago, in spite of their yearning to breach that gap.
The spare set is a wall that looks like cement block construction, standing mid-stage. A mirror revealed along one side of the stage becomes a line of dressing tables, signifying the space where actors prepare for their work, rather than the center-stage space where they do the work. Sonja Berlovitz has devised costumes that strip the actors down to anonymous grey and black garb, with clothing and accessories appearing more as props than garments to identify the characters the actors temporarily adopt. Marcus Dilliard's lighting distinguishes the storytelling segments of Anamnesis from the view, as if a behind the scenes look, of the actors trying to figure out what their story is and how to tell it.
The Moving Company, descended as they are from the legendary Theatre de la Jeune Lune, does not set out to tell simple stories, though they use simple elements of theater to make their presentation. Through this inventive and entertaining production, Anamnesis challenges us to ask those same questions the play begins with: "Where were we? Why? How?," and implicitly "what's next?"
Anamnesis, a production of The Moving Company, has extended through February 6, 2022, at The Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $28.00 - $38.00. For performance schedule and tickets, please visit www.southerntheater.org. For information about The Moving Company, please visit www.themovingco.org.
Conceived and written by Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand; Director: Dominique Serrand; Set Design: Dominique Serrand with Chad Lynch; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Assistant Lighting Designer: Patricia Goodson; Original Music: Eric Jensen; Stage Manager: Chloe Brevik-Rich.
Cast: Eiostí Aaske, Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Steven Epp, Maddie Granlund, Masanari Kawahara, Nathan Keepers, Julia Valen,