Most theater is an experiment, putting people, words, and ideas into play in a physical space. And minutes before the opening night of There by Etel Adnan, through Sept. 22 at the Wilma Theater, Walter Bilderback — dramaturg, literary manager, and co-adapter (with Wilma founder Blanka Zizka) of There — told me, “This is pretty experimental, even for us.”
Zizka, Bilderback, and eight superb actors from the Wima’s HotHouse incubator take on a profound literary work while somehow also creating a worthwhile piece of theater. Not everything succeeds, and it won’t be to all tastes. But There is a very difficult thing done well.
Adnan, a painter, essayist, and poet with close ties to Lebanon, America, and the French-speaking world, wrote There (published here in 1997) as a poem, not as a script. It has no characters, no plot — just powerful language and powerful themes. Central is the question of identity. Does every “I” need an “other” against whom I define myself? Do I need an enemy?
An enormous half-pipe ramp traverses the entire theater front to back. It’s a brilliant design by visual artist Rosa Barba. Actors run, cluster, slide, climb, and writhe over all of it, together and apart. There are next to no props. A man slices tomatoes. A woman sifts earth through her fingers. Men thrash beneath a projected number-countdown film strip, a breathtaking image of conflict.
The music is absolutely ravishing, thanks to composer/director Alex Dowling and singer-musicians Liz Filios, Brenson Thomas, and Emma O’Halloran. Their sensuously processed harmonies excelled in the passage beginning, “What is here?: a place or an idea, a circle focused in God’s eye, a cosmic wave’s frozen frame, transient, doomed?”
It’s a true all-star gathering: Krista Apple, Ross Beschler, Taysha Marie Canales, Melanye Finister, Sarah Gliko, Justin Jain, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Matteo Scammell have distinguished themselves again and again in local theater, and they’re all really good. Finister gets several of the best moments, as in
I hated you for so long in the inner territory that we inhabited
together that you’re now the negative print of my identity
(no, not a shadow), the unwanted companion who becomes, o
tragedy!, love’s very substance.
At times, density or abstractness made for insuperable challenges. Apple has a lovely soliloquy beginning, “One. One plus one,” but then comes this:
Do rights have foundations given the myriads of elements
which make up in this avalanche of probabilities, the past,
the present, my future and yours, the constant displacement
of causes and effects, in the primordial chaos of passion, the
sacrificial nature of Love, in the sea’s blind beauty and the
What is the company supposed to do, with so many ideas and effects spinning like plates atop so many sticks? And some lines that work as poetry do not as dialogue, as in “Would it be better for the dead if it rained on earth?”
But this ensemble relishes making There sing. What stays with you are the reverberant themes, and Adnan’s sun- and heat-drenched images of desert and sea, her constant questions. What are we? Where, indeed, are we?
Through Sept. 22 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.