Review: Communal Catharsis

NOTE: Review contains spoilers. Location and date details refer to the original production.

Support local arts reporting: read this article at Dallas Art Beat 

Prism Movement Theater’s Everything Will Be Fine Creates Communal Catharsis During Pandemic

by Adrian Cook | Dallas Art Beat

As a performance scholar and a performing artist, I have been contemplative over the past four months, imagining and considering how we can create live theatrical experiences during this pandemic. As expected, I have seen a number of artists and companies utilize digital platforms to navigate our current situation with degrees of brilliance – some have held open mic sessions and synchronous theatrical performances on Zoom, while others have transitioned what were initially plays into films that are then delivered via ticketed streams. These approaches are valid. Each in their own way has captured something of the “liveness” and/or vitality upon which the theatrical arts rely. None are strictly speaking, theatre, which is defined at its core as a performance in which the audience and performers share space (and energy) in real time, establishing a sacred ritual space in order to ultimately bring about the catharsis that Aristotle states is the purpose of tragedy – the “terror and pity,” the shared, spontaneous outpouring of emotion triggered by our deepest store of raw energy witnessing powerful embodiments of ubiquitous human struggles. How, pray tell, do we accomplish that while responsibly practicing social distancing? Not only does Prism Movement Theater’s Everything Will Be Fine answer this question, they do so by delivering a show whose themes humanize the origin of the question – the collective grief we all feel having lost our state of normalcy.

Yes, the protagonist’s grief is specific, but that’s what makes a good story – we can see our general grief reflected in her specific state of suffering. The performance is inspirational because it is ride or die live theatre, it is deftly executed, and it is deeply relatable.

 Playwright Zoe Kerr, co-director Jeffery Colangelo, and co-director/choreographer Kwame Lilly, create such a striking performance with a talented troupe of dancers and technical direction by Jonah Gutierrez because they return to theatre’s rudimentary elements – a place to play, a place to watch, and a story to tell. The place is the parking lot of the Latino Cultural Center; but it is not a blank, undefined lot. Cars (including the audience’s vehicles) define the space, giving it shape, setting its parameters. The central, “company” car even serves as the altar in this 21st-century remix of a Greek theatron. The action returns here, it revolves around the central spot, which is glorious past, painful present, and possible future. Though safely inside my vehicle with my immediate family, I truly felt a part of the space that was created, and I felt connected to the action.

 The action, which runs at a perfect 45 minutes, is told in movement, dance. The only dialogue is a prologue, broadcast -- as is the contemporary music that scores the remainder of the performance – through your vehicle stereo. This prologue establishes the stakes, but the true exposition, the inciting incident, and the entire dramatic arc is all body work. The performances are not only stunning, but very clear. Without dialogue, the action manages to be specific and universal at once. The lyrics within the music do create a touchpoint, but as one’s lyrical interpretations are so often personal, the motion and lyrics together not only allow but invite each audience member to craft personalized nuance from a collectively concrete narrative. 

Direction, performance, and design work together to create the collective experience – each choice sharp. A couple’s relationship and power dynamics are revealed by dancers Kelsey Milbourn and Mitchell Stephens in playful indications and a few reversals of conventional gendered dance norms. The inciting tragedy is perpetrated literally by a faceless foe, portrayed by the chorus of dancers who later embody various entities including friends of the protagonist, the protagonist’s former self, and the Spectre of Death itself, each persona crafted of simple but effective costume pieces. The onstage change of the protagonist is particularly inspired; as she is stripped of her rose-colored blouse, the muscular figure in sports top, leggings, and the gloves and “COVID mask” that connects her to all of us give her the appearance of a fighter. Appropriate, given the marathon match she must now fight against unfathomable grief, herself, isolation, and the demons that lurk in all corners of our pernicious world. Though the protagonist tires in her bout, the performer Kelsey Milbourn never wains. Milbourn’s energy, commitment, and stamina are impressive, and Kwame Lilly’s choreography pops, flows, jolts, and pops again.

This performance is moving. It is primal and layered at once. Everything Will Be Fine is not overtly meta-theatrical. It is not presentational; the action does exist within its own representational world. It a story of a human grieving told through dance and movement rather than a long-form dance with movements corresponding neatly to the stages of grief. When it circles back in narrative eddies, it reveals a psychologically realistic examination of a process that, in its raw humanness, is never neatly mapped nor linearly navigable. 

What the space of Everything Will Be Fine does allow by removing the need to follow dialogue is the space to simultaneously follow the action and consciously experience one’s own psychological journey. Even while rapt by the action on stage, watching live theatre in my car, with face-masked performers, with cars as wings and alter, there in my own bubble but connected communally to the next vehicle, and the next, in the middle of a surging pandemic; I had the surreal feeling that our 1980s near-future science fiction had come to fruition. In that moment, it seemed to the 80s child that survives in some small region of my being that Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Ridley Scott had somehow gotten the 2020s right. That this is theatre in the early twenty-first century. More poignantly, I realized in that moment that, like the protagonist herself, I have to recon with the fact that I will never be wholly who I was before this all went down. A part of who we were remains, but we must dance with, not as them. They are outside of us now, torn from us by the grief, the trauma that reminds us why tragedy is the seed of theatre…why we need catharsis…that this is what it means to be human.

p.s. Even little humans, who stand gracefully apart from the grown-up pull and tug of time and its wounds, can enjoy this. Prism has done a great job at making this performance accessible to families. Though it is not designed as a “family show,” our children enjoyed it, and they felt welcome at the performance. As we pulled in, they were given gift bags with animal masks, activity books, and colors, graciously donated by Dallas PAAL Chapter (Parent-Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts). My four-year-old sat in my lap for a full half an hour, glued to the action…which he viewed through the eye holes in his new panda mask.