I Forgot To Remember To Forget

I wanna be down: Joy Vaught wants to trade disabilities in Interact Theater's 'Imagination and Memory'
Courtesy of Interact Theatre

That aspect of our selves that reconstructs our experience through memory is creative by necessity, extracting narrative and meaning from an ever-heightening stack of years (and so it must be, otherwise we'd be stuck reminiscing about bowls of cereal and going upstairs and promptly forgetting why). It's when these creations of recollection touch on injury, loss, and heartache that they take on a more complicated cast and, with time, assume a beauty of their own. Into this territory ventures Interact Theater's Imagination and Memory, a bittersweet multimedia exploration directed by Jeanne Calvit that, while enduring its share of misfires, succeeds in transporting its audience into a vivid and at times very moving frame of mind.

Imagination and Memory is a collaboration between disabled performers from the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts and muralist Ta-coumba Aiken, sculptor Lourdes Cue, and puppeteer Michael Sommers. It's a fecund partnership, with a resulting visual stamp of off-kilter, near-archetypal simplicity. Much of the action is anchored by a large opaque screen placed center stage, on which shadow puppets and projected images evoke spiderwebs, cities, profiles: the stuff, in short, of primal memory and imagining.

The evening might best be described as a surreal musical revue with spoken-word interludes and snatches of drama. Stuffed to one side of the stage are the Cigars of Beauty Band as well as a chorus. In all, there are nearly 30 musical performers (the Sun Ra Arkestra's multigenerational inclusiveness and penchant for costumes meets the deadpan surrealism of the Polyphonic Spree). Eriq Nelson on guitar plays the part of irrepressible bandleader, generally conducting himself like some unacknowledged offspring of Dr. John, while Doug Rhode leads the chorus. While the band and chorus at times lack the precision and projection of a more professional ensemble, they enthusiastically navigate emotionally complex and soulful terrain.

The majority of the program comprises short vignettes that utilize circumstances of disability as a point of departure. Esther Ouray gives an understated but compelling performance describing the loss of a woman's memory, while Stephanie Schwartz's effective "Houses and Memories" combines recorded voices recalling childhood homes with projections and shadow play--particularly beguiling is the voice of a man who has recently lost his mother, his connection to the past. He intently tallies the hours, days, and minutes that comprise his biography.

Joy Vaught's musical monologue about her Prader-Willi syndrome (a chromosomal condition that can result in uncontrolled eating, symbolized in Vaught's costume by an empty, and presumably previously consumed, tub of Play-Doh) turns forthright and deeply funny when she laments that her disability lacks charm and that she envies those cute, lovable, and lucky types...who have Down syndrome. Cue up the band for Vaught to take a run at "I Wish I Were Down Syndrome," and for eight costumed dancers with Down syndrome to emerge from the wings, grinning, mugging, and sharing a hilarious existential joke between Vaught, themselves, and the audience. It's no exaggeration to say that the laugh evoked was of the belly-holding-Buddha variety.

While John Boler's monologue about synesthesia between blindness and color nicely merges the show's themes, other works are a bit sketchy. Phil Epstein's angry debate with himself over a long-ago car accident seems unfinished, and a frankly maudlin melodrama toward the end of the production fails to redeem itself on the strength of a punch line. Still, redemption arrives in the form of the snaky and profound "Moving Beyond the Fear of Dying," in which Calvit's lyric "Teach us to care, Teach us not to care" invokes a prayerlike appeal for a means to measure and coexist with the past--which, for each of us, at times seems the product of a fevered imagination. Interact Theater has crafted an uneven show that nonetheless touches in fleeting moments the vast reaches of memory and experience, doing so in a fashion that makes life, and art, seem as though they contain just a few more possibilities. For this alone the production is deserving of notice.

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