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achieves this transportive effect, in part, because it has one of the strongest and clearest aesthetics of any play I've seen at PS122. I could easily imagine the design (both set and costume) on the slick stages of BAM, where visual impact in a production is often paramount. It has a surprisingly mid-century feel, something like the illustrations of Charley Harper
—all black, white, grays and primary colors. It evokes all those heavily designed and simplified images of science that have been in vogue for some time now in the crafty set and in design work in general. Wrestlers dressed in bright blue singlets orbit the stage, grappling with one another, while a grid of marshmallows morphs into wide curving illustrations. Dancers is gray and red move deliberately through the space while Pearl, often literally lifted onto blocks or plastic heels, speaks. To the eye it reads like a stark version of Disney's 1959 classic Donald In Mathmagic Land
, which just seems extremely appropriate for this performance.
Happily, just as Terrible Things
asks us to wonder freely, it resists whimsy. The story is based on reality, and like the electron's bounded atomic reality, the subject of the work is bounded by Pearl's own experience. She is everywhere simultaneously that she can be, but where she can be is within her own life or her own head. This grounding in fact seems to keep the show from losing track of itself, but also makes it hard to watch the show and not wonder what possibility means outside the circumscribed world of an atom or Pearl's life.
I ran into someone I know leaving the theater after the show, and after our conversation I couldn't help but think that it's generally people who have achieved certain dreams of theirs, who have lived lives of possibility, so to speak, that can really say something like "Let’s say anything is possible and everything is happening." It's an optimist's outlook, which I don't mean as a slight, though I know some might interpret it that way. It makes me think a little bit of the speakers at a recent event I attended related to the TED Conference, where speakers who have attained a certain amount of success in their fields share stories of achieving unlikely outcomes. All of it is very exciting and hopeful, and imagination is, I believe, the key to solving any problem, but it's also one of the things that I think contemporary society has the hardest time cultivating in children, despite so much lip-service being paid to improving education. After listening to Pearl and the speakers at the TED event, I can't help wonder about those people whose possibilities are dramatically limited, or who believe that they are for any number of reasons.
This, of course, is a larger question that grew out of seeing Terrible Things
and is not meant as a critique of the show. I point it out to express the fact that ideas grow out of good works of art. It's the way in which I think art and science relate the most—they create more questions than they answer. And what's crucial about the idea of an electron obtaining multiple outcomes is that those outcomes are in fact dramatically limited, bounded by the space of an atom. The electron cannot be everywhere in the universe doing all things, only those things that an electron does within its atom. And that's a provocative paradox, I think, when you consider artists' attraction to the Uncertainty Principle's promise of possibility.
(photo credit: Justin Bernhaut)