Masters of Devising, Misfits by Training
by Goat in the Road Productions
Robert E. Nims Theatre | New Orleans
directed by Chris Kaminstein
In New Orleans, Louisiana, the conversation of devised theatre nearly begins and ends with Goat in the Road Productions. Goat in the Road’s most recent devised work, Foreign to Myself, directed by the company's co-artistic director, Chris Kaminstein, remounted at the University of New Orleans after its original run in May 2017, explores the difficulties of reintegration to American society for two war veterans: Charles Whittlesey, an American soldier who has returned from WWI Germany and Alex Philips, a recent deployment from Afghanistan. Kaminstein handles this sensitive and challenging subject matter with wit, grace and an eye for the most central issues. In addition, Foreign to Myself asserts the power of devised theatre to a community that is mostly starved of its presence and reveals themselves as a company who loves the theatrical medium for all of its parts. No element of the drama is left uncultivated. Reflecting on the show, three words come to mind: equity, fluidity, and alienation.
The narrative of Foreign to Myself parallels the reintegrations of the two century-divided vets, Alex (Darci Fulcher) and Charles (William Bowling), through similar familial interactions, living arrangements and habits. They are reflected in such symmetry, we fear that Alex’s story may come to the same tragic end as Charles’s. We are relieved, however, when Alex commits to a more positive solution. She will soldier on in the fight for normalcy.
First of all, the greatest strength of Goat in the Road is the equity of its artists, a conclusion to which any witness of this production can testify. No performance or design element in Foreign to Myself stands out alone because each aspect mingles with its counterparts in inseparable cohesion. Even the space is utilized to its singular potential with site-specific staging. For example, the ghost of a fallen comrade rises from a trap door in house-left and stalks onto the stage like Banquo to Macbeth’s feast. In another instance, two of the players double as violinists (Bowling and Denise Frazier), expounding in character on the mathematics of Bach. The company clearly pays attention to the skills of its company members.
Secondly, Foreign to Myself is a fluid entity. It flows from scene to scene (and occasional scene transitions are underscored by Peter J. Bowling’s pensive, strings-and-synth-based music played and mixed live at a soundboard just visibly offstage); supporting players to slip with ease between a variety of characters; the fourth wall is at times solid, sometimes clear and liquid, at other times simply viscous. The audience is periodically addressed in an earnest, educational way; one gets the sense that the performers themselves are speaking, engaging humbly with the onlookers to invest their full attention. It is apparent from the first instant that the piece seeks to develop a relationship with its audience; it does not relegate the viewer to mere spectatorship. Fluidity remains present in the company’s movement, especially in the solo exhibitions of one of its most talented movement artists, Jeremy Guyton. A corporeal masterpiece comes in a horse therapy scene, in which Alex tames a wild stallion. Moving as a unit, her castmates comprise the horse, stomping and snorting, seamlessly dissolving and reassembling across the stage as Alex pulls and gives slack to the roped animal. Kaci Thomassie’s practical and efficient costume design also glides cleanly through many on-stage costume changes.
Most of all, this is a play that both depicts and employs a feeling of alienation. It subtly suggests this very feeling to the audience in a number of ways. In one scene, seven players are seated at a dinning table angled upstage so that their faces are not visible. In another, several conversations take place at one time on a family picnic, making it difficult to discern a single dialogue (this stressful moment causes Alex to experience a panic attack). Lighting and sound design also take part in alienating the viewer. Joshua Courtney’s cinematic lighting design resourcefully utilizes fluorescent tubes for their startling brightness and queasy pulsing. Severe, angular, jarring, colorful, Courtney’s lighting does not put on airs. Kyle Sheehan’s sound design can disappear in the effortless naturalism of its ambiance until suddenly shocking the audience into awareness of its presence by a skin-crawling tonal blast. These aggressively unsettling design elements draw tension with the more fluid and inclusive aspects of the play, a juxtaposition which puts the audience in oscillating states of comfort and discomfort. The viewer is further distressed by a pervasive anxiety that the play may literally collapse. A chair crumbles; a vertical pipe falls; a light plunges from the ceiling to swing by a rope. The actors themselves may crash to the deck at any moment if not saved in the nick of time by desperate hands just trying to keep it all together.
Goat in the Road Productions has a niche appeal in New Orleans as a collective of manifestly capable artists in the craft of devised theatre. Like the veterans whose stories they share, the “Goats” are themselves “misfits by training” (a charming epithet supplied by Charles Whittlesey). They produce unique work and with masterful control. The success of Foreign to Myself is not a testament to the ability of talented individuals (though indeed they are), but rather to the force of an equitable, celebratory collaboration between talented individuals.
photo | ©Joshua Brasted