‘HOW TO LOVE” BY MEGAN COHEN GETS A CHALLENGING EXPERIMENTAL PRODUCTION FROM “PERFORMERS UNDER STRESS”

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“How to Love”, a world premiere by Megan Cohen. Produced by “Performers Under Stress”. Director: Scott Baker. Assistant Director: Wm. D. Razo. Technical Director: Erich Blazeski. Stage Manager: Colin Johnson. Assistant Stage Manager/Props: Lizabeth Stanley.

The Loved One: Valerie Fachman. The Magistrate: Geo Epsilanty. The Very Sexy One: Jessica Schroeder.  The Stern One: Gloria MacDonald. The Young, Sympathetic One: Brian Martin.

A much admired teacher of mine, playwright Donald Freed, likes to talk about how challenging it is to encounter genuinely new work. The problem, he points out, is that it will be inaccessible, at least at first. New work, if it is any good, demands that its audience look with fresh insight to match the fresh insight of the art. This requires a willingness to except some initial confusion and misunderstanding to reach the payoff that comes with discovery.

Geo Ipsilanty, Gloria MacDonald, Jessica Schroeder, Valerie Fachman and Brian Martin in Megan Cohen's "How To Love" Presented by Performers Under Stress at The Garage. Photo Credit: Performers Under Stress

Watching Megan Cohen‘s “How To Love”, I began the evening confused and befuddled and left the theatre feeling I had encountered something quite new and exciting, if imperfect. As one who attends the theatre at least 60 times a year, I can say with some certainty that finding something really new is a rare treat.

In their program notes, the company tells us that Performers Under Stress have “developed this piece through a unique physical theatre workshop-into-rehearsal process that forges a new way for the audience to experience the intersection of language and the human body, promising an evening of joyous, high-energy, intensely kinetic ensemble work.”

That is a good description. Although not accompanied by a musical score, every segment is an intensely kinetic creation by a company of artists who push the boundaries of expression and are clearly engaged in testing themselves physically and emotionally against challenging material.

There is a sort of plot: four archetypal types (the Very Sexy One, the Stern One,  the Young, Sympathetic One and the Magistrate) are locked in a subterranean chamber where they set out to discover “How To Love”. They have one week to satisfy the magistrate that they have successfully answered the question, or they will simply disappear. With the aid of The Loved One, they try to survive.

But the plot isn’t the point. What we witness is essentially a series of prose poems (and two traditional sonnets) explored via dance and recitation by an extraordinary troupe. It feels, in some ways, more like a poetry reading performed by actor/dancers than a play. This is not necessarily a bad thing. What we have here is a new form that is still finding its legs.

The poems are uneven, ranging from the brilliant “Alphabet”, performed to astonishing effect by Brian Martin, to sequences that seem to be little more than filler.

It makes for an evening that is at times ravishing, at times irritating, but almost always quite stimulating.

The whole thing is wondrous and imperfect and strange. It is like Frankenstein’s monster: disparate pieces stitched together, kind of ugly, lumbering, not very skilled at times, confused and disturbing but unmistakably and surprisingly ALIVE. “IT’S ALIVE”, in the mad voice of Dr. Frankenstein, was the phrase that rang in my head when I  tried to think about the production as I left The Garage.

I hope we will see this company continue to explore their unique brand of physical theatre: they are onto something big.

If you have a taste for the experimental and are willing to be challenged as much as entertained, this one is definitely worth your time. For further information, click here.

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