Uncertain Possibilities

12/09/2009 4:00 AM |

"Let's say anything is possible and everything is happening." This is a line from the newest play by Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour, a pair that has been creating performances together for 14 years now. This new work, Terrible Things, follows a largely autobiographical story about Katie Pearl's life, with a particular focus on the thwarting of her childhood dream of being a ballerina, along with a history of her lovers. The metaphor that binds the anecdotes in the show, as well as the idea that the play explores in general, is possibility. Specifically, the notion, borrowed from quantum physics, that because we cannot presently measure the location of a single electron at a given time, that electron can be described as being in all of its possible locations at any specific time. In other words, it's everywhere that it can be simultaneously. This theory is related to theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle].

A lot of artists, particularly performance artists, have delved into the Uncertainty Principle and its implications in their work—most famously in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen. The principle not only evokes the realm of possibility, it also touches on the completeness of human ignorance, it gives rise to metaphysical questions in many people, and it also taps into what I think is a basic human fascination with really smart people and the theories of theirs that we would like to feel we can understand. And science is sexy. Its popular appeal waxes and wanes, but people who can figure things out have long been way hotter than blonds blinking through tired sex tapes.

In this play, Pearl and D'Amour, along with their collaborator Emily Johnson, who provides the choreography, seem to want us to embrace the possibilities that our imagination offers us—possibilities that may or may not come true in life. For instance, at one point in the play Pearl describes an argument with her father in which he feels theater does not constitute the real world and Pearl responds by asking him if he could imagine his librarian wife becoming not only a celebrity of sorts, but also a librarian action figure, which, if you listen to a lot of NPR, you'll know actually happened in the "real world." They want us to "what if" a bit, not only about Pearl's life, but also about our own role as audience members—what if we got up on stage and made the show our own, about where we are in the universe—what if the theater took off into space, and about the choices we've made in our own lives.

This kind of engagement of the audience in the ideas of the play is characteristic of pretty much all of Pearl and D'Amour's work, much of which has taken place outside of traditional theater spaces and often involves site-specific texts. It's one of the enduring successes of most of their work as well—this ability to literally and figuratively take their audiences along with them. In fact, there's a moment towards the end of the show when Pearl is off-stage, continuing to speak, and describes retrieving a ladder to place in the center of the stage so that we, the audience, might climb it and join her on the roof of PS122. As she spoke, there entered a very palpable expectation in the audience that this might actually happen, and I gather, from the expressions on people's faces that for many of us, despite the cold, it seemed like an interesting thing to do. (After all, what is up there on the roof of PS122, it's been surrounded by scaffolding for so long? And who doesn't like being on any roof in New York?) This last 30 minutes or so of the show gave me a feeling similar to being in an IMAX theater or on one of those space rides at science museums where 10 or 20 people huddle into a machine that rocks and jumps as you view images of hurtling through galaxies. In other words, I felt briefly transported. And that seems to be the intention of the work entirely—to take note of those moments where we feel separated from ourselves, to entertain a reality we weren't entirely sure we would ever entertain.