Just to get this off my chest: if you ever buy tickets for a show at Walker Art Center's McGuire Theater, beware the peripheral seats in the balcony. Maybe there was a warning about obstructed viewing on the web site-- it would not be shocking if I missed that-- but obstructed the view is, to the point where I'm not sure why they even sell the seats.
Anyhow, this evening of experimental theater by the Australian company Back to Back Theatre managed to satisfy nonethemesss. The basic story concerns the Hindu deity Ganesh's quest through time and space to reclaim the swastika (a symbol associated with Ganesh, and a benign artifact of many Asian spiritual traditions) from the Nazis.
This narrative quickly unravels as it spins off into a parallel depiction of the theater company putting together the show. Back to Back's mission involves presenting work by "people who are perceived to have a disability", and a great deal of the meta-plot examines this mission, both in terms of the audience's potential interest in this phenomenon and the potential power dynamics between the "director" (played by an actor) and the "actors" in the show. So the piece dissolves into the fluidity of an actor playing a character who's playing another character, and so on.
Sporadically we plunge into vignettes from the Ganesh story line-- shrouded in layers of diaphanous plastic sheeting, stark cutout set pieces, and misty lighting. The eerie look reminds me of the video game Limbo, and appears to emerge from the same set of influences:
It's easy to say that the conceptual conceits of the show have all been "done before", though I'm not sure that's true-- there are many awkward and unsettling moments in the show that left me wondering what exactly the agenda was, which I imagine was intentional. I appreciated that the mission appeared to be stirring up questions rather than hammering home a message. And anyway, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" has been done a million times and I'd still go see that again.
I'll conclude with assorted thoughts from artistic director Brue Gladwin, as quoted in the Walker's magazine:
"We presented a work a few years ago at the Walker called Small Metal Objects, which took place in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The audience had headphones and the actors were radio-miked, really discretely, and they blended in the crowd in the garden. When the show started, you heard two people in dialogue, but you would look at maybe 20 people who were walking through the garden and you’d have to work out who was having this conversation."
"We’re interested in that point that creates a situation where people do think about the strangeness of their own thoughts. And as much as the work brings people together in some sort of understanding of what humanity is, it also separates them. It creates a sense of division and debate... It’s not a specific kind of didactic message."
"Not all the actors see themselves as having a disability. So even though audiences will look at someone on stage and go, 'That’s definitely a person with a disability,' the actors themselves don’t engage in that discussion... They don’t see themselves as a person with a disability; they don’t see it as relevant... We say 'perceived' because it’s a label that comes from the outside in rather than the inside out."