Swim Pony Performing Arts Collective's production asks the big questions.
The city’s newest theater company, Swim Pony Performing Arts Collective (made up primarily of folks behind the Philly Fringe productions Purr, Pull, Reign: A Litigious Fantasy in D; The Giant Squid; and The Ballad of Joe Hill), makes a promising debut with the unusual site-specific production SURVIVE!
Directed by Swim Pony’s artistic director Adrienne Mackey (who conceived the show with cast members Jamie McKittrick, Ahren Potratz, David Sweeny and Brad Wrenn), SURVIVE asks us to ponder our relationship with the universe. From the moment you walk down the stairs and into the basement of the Wolf Building you are disoriented. Instead of the Wolf’s usual open space, which measures a vast 25,000 square feet, you encounter a series of narrow corridors that wind their way through giant sheets of plastic that stretch from ceiling to floor. After locating the makeshift box office (which took me a couple of tries, even after being given directions at the door), you head to a plant-filled “biotic terrarium” that serves as the show’s lobby.
SURVIVE officially starts (if it has such a thing as an official start) in a white room known as “the hub.” Reminiscent of something Picasso might have imagined, the room is empty save for seats surrounding a white, cube-like object and vaguely geometric shapes that cover the ceiling.
The disembodied voice of a space alien named AMA (Auto-Tuned actress Wendy Staton) welcomes us, and the show’s four actors appear. They portray four scientists involved with the Pioneer satellites, which were launched in 1972 in an effort to communicate with whomever or whatever we share the galaxy with. The four are engaged in a rather absurd argument/discussion about the best way to introduce ourselves to inhabitants of the galaxy.
This opening scene is as close as SURVIVE comes to conventional theater; after the scientists settle on anatomical drawings and a plaque declaring “We are humanity. We are here,” things start getting interesting. The hub serves as a home base for our journey; at one point in the show, we are treated to cookies by our unseen alien host.
Leaving the hub, each audience member is free to choose his or her own road through scenic designer Lisi Stoessel’s sprawling maze of pathways and small rooms, referred to as “nodes.” It is in each node that we encounter one of the four “fractals.” Devised by AMA as the most efficient way to communicate with us, each fractal is described as a distillation of AMA. Portrayed by the four actors who earlier played the bickering scientists, the fractals have human form and strange names like Gentle Scientist (Wrenn), Sand (Potratz), Kinetic Girl (McKittrick) and Weave (Sweeny). The actors give the fractals human qualities. Gentle Scientist is warm and friendly, Weave is intense and Kinetic Girl is lively and enthusiastic (none of the rooms I visited featured Sand). However, we never make any deep connection with the fractals as we would the characters in a conventional play, a fact more attributed to the script than the actors’ abilities.
Each node is its own little universe. In a small room filled with upside-down furniture (a strange decorative touch that, like so many things in SURVIVE, goes unexplained) Weave plays with a piece of string to offer an explanation of the non-linear aspects and many dimensions of space-time. In another, Kinetic Girl explains that “you are always moving, especially when you are sleeping.” Considering that she says this while performing a tap-dance routine worthy of a young Shirley Temple, we believe her. The Gentle Scientist, dressed in a button-down sweater, is the most recognizably human of the four and is a bit reminiscent of Mr. Rogers.
Artistic Director Mackey states that the goal of SURVIVE is to “bridge the gap between the information about the universe we learn from science and the intuitive feelings we have developed as humans,” an ambitious goal, to say the least. While enrolled at Swarthmore College (where she double-majored in theater and chemistry), Mackey became fascinated with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the simplified version of which is, “The more you know about one aspect of a particle, the less you know about another aspect of that particle.” Or, in more poetic terms, “You can’t ever see the complete picture.”
SURVIVE ’s setup mirrors this principle. With its multiple combinations (according to Mackey, the show has 164 variations), each journey through the show is slightly different, and none of the scenes is repeated.
Does SURVIVE achieve its impossibly ambitious goal of bridging the gap between science and emotion in 95 minutes? Of course not. But it is quite affecting and thought-provoking. In my version of the production, the Gentle Scientist took us out onto a “walkway to space.” Standing in the dark, lights suddenly sprang to life all around us, with a beautiful effect like floating among the stars. At that moment, you aren’t thinking about black holes, the credibility of the theories you’ve heard or how well SURVIVE is making its case. Instead, you begin to think about humanity and our place in the universe. And when’s the last time you did that?
Through June 20
340 N. 12th St.
Calendar: Sept. 30-Oct. 7