Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Heather Woodbury: Tale of 2 Cities Tracks 1-3 

Sitting in the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, with its dark wood pews, arcing ceiling, art deco chandeliers, and technology at its most rudimentary is like being on the inside of an old-fashioned radio. The pre-show music, and the soap in the bathroom that smells like my grandmother's perfume only add to the effect. The perfect venue for this piece in particular.

Heather Woodbury's Tale of 2 Cities is an aural treat. Appropriately subtitled an "American Joyride on Multiple Tracks," Woodbury gives us a glimpse of the stories behind the multi-layered voices of the American soundtrack. Tracks 1-3 introduce us to intertwining tales of first love, brutal attack, displacement, and dealing with loss from a variety of perspectives. The characters are both very young and very old, white and black, East and West, migrant labor and tech savvy, and everything in between. My favorite voices include a grandmother, lying dead on her kitchen floor while kittens play with her hair and her grandson spins records over her dead body; a young woman writing late-night sardonic emails to her brother across the globe; and the fast-talking pre-teen murder suspect--a young Dick Tracy bimbo with 90's slang. And Woodbury does all of this with a few microphones, a chair, a baseball diamond taped on the floor, a stellar soundscape by H'edi El Kholti, and her voice.

The diversity of characters Woodbury is able to vocalize in this "living novel" is truly impressive. She shifts between them quite seamlessly, and I can hear that she has a detailed sense of the characters behind the auditory chunks she shares with the audience. However, the same detail is not given to the characters' physicality. Sharing a space with the characters didn't really add anything to their words, which makes me wonder why Woodbury chooses the stage for her medium. Woodbury fails to place the characters in a meaningful spatial arrangement, and thus the performance falls short of the potential provided by the thoughtful characters, their narrative voices, and their shared story.

I would also welcome a hint of Woodbury's own voice, either literarily or metaphorically. One of most pleasurable and enduring qualities of the novel is the author's voice. Though we can infer from the program notes that this project--several years in the making--has been a personally significant endeavor, Woodbury's perspective as researcher, author, storyteller and unifying element is oddly absent from the piece. I think this results in a sacrifice of a potentially valuable connection between performer and audience.

I did make it through the first three acts (each approximately 45 minutes in length) on Monday night, and left proud of my theatrical trooperness. I felt the performance gained momentum throughout, and would definitely suggest taking in more than one at a time (I would also suggest nabbing one of the free cushions for stamina enhancement). However, it was not enough to entice me for three more tonight, and I think I'll take the remaining in smaller bites if at all.

According to the program notes, this project has been evolving over two years, and is still admittedly a work in progress. This is also the first attempt at presenting the material through a solo performance. I would offer nothing but enthusiastic encouragement for further developing this project, but though I can appreciate the potential and several promising elements of its current state, I am overall left satisfied, pleased, and unmoved.

And if there's something totally surprising and wonderful about the second half, do tell.

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