A procession of enigmas
Crooner and showgirls on SS Columbia
Theater company Torn Space has been a Buffalo treasure for over a decade now, but is perhaps most widely known for its site-specific performances at Silo City, presented for the last four years. On August 18–21, the group mounted its largest such production yet, Burden, which involved a cast and crew of sixty-five.
Burden was the centerpiece of Torn Space’s weekend-long performance festival, Response. The festival included a memorable live music event by NYC-based (and internationally renowned) group Temporary Distortion, and a well-received lecture at Hallwalls by visiting performance scholar Bonnie Marranca.
Written and directed by Torn Space founders Dan Shanahan and Melissa Meola, Burden was designed for Marine A, a vast, 120-foot-tall grain elevator with interconnecting concrete silos, and for the old, historic passenger ship SS Columbia, docked adjacent to the grain elevator. The production transformed the silo into an otherworldly space, plunging the audience into an immersive sensory experience of light, sound, image, architecture, and performance.
Shanahan and Meola have always been restless innovators working at the borders of theater, and including other forms such as cinema, performance art, and multimedia spectacle. Clear narratives and well-rounded characters don’t interest them very much. Instead, they fashion a “theater of images” that takes real, historical spaces—such as the silos—and charges them with mystery and disquiet.
Each performance of Burden spanned ninety minutes, and was witnessed by an audience of about fifty that was led by guides through a sequence of spaces in the enormous grain elevator. Each space bore prominent historical marks—such as stains and blemishes on the wall or rusted remnants of metal fixtures—but had also been altered with light, color, and carefully placed objects. The movement through the silos was hushed and deliberate.
Photo by Ami Lake
The fifteen or so distinct spaces through which we traveled were each host to some kind of ritualistic event. Some (but not all) of these events involved human figures. The first space featured students dressed in white, preppy outfits, wearing transparent, molded plastic masks that lent a creepy air. In another room, a woman in a white flowing dress sat still in a chair, her body twisted around, her eyes fixed on a window through which the setting sun shone. After the entire audience filed into the room and stood still in a circle, she turned and slowly pointed one by one to three viewers and asked them to approach. To each she handed a stone, and whispered something. An hour later, toward the end of the performance, those three audience members were identified by the staff and led away to an undisclosed location.
Musical performance played a key role in several of the events. On the SS Columbia, a cabaret crooner sang a song while an African-American couple danced gracefully. But their idyll ended abruptly when two hulking, white men approached and silently positioned themselves uncomfortably close to the dancers, thus bringing the dance to a halt. Another singer performed a heart-wrenching a cappella version of “Lilac Wine.” George Gershwin’s music could be heard in snatches throughout the show, in different arrangements and with varying instrumentation. It served as a loose thread that connected various episodes, and was part of a larger overarching presence of black music including Dixieland jazz, the blues (a form that decisively marked Gershwin’s work), and the evocation of Nina Simone in “Lilac Wine.” The show culminated in a rousing recreation of a revival tent meeting presided over by a fire-and-brimstone preacher (played by long-time Torn Space performer John Toohill), and featuring an electrifying vocal performance by singer Zoe Scruggs. Given the gradual, measured build-up of the previous hour-and-a-half, the climax delivered an emotional high that felt genuinely earned.
As in other Torn Space productions, there was no linear narrative connecting the various episodes of the show. Instead, what we were led to experience was a slowing down of movement—and with it, an accompanying sharpening of our alertness and perception. All spaces and actions we witnessed were rigorously minimalist, which meant that our heightened senses were ripe for paying close attention, for absorption. In the end, what I admire most about this theater company’s productions is their ability to miraculously produce this compelling, moment-to-moment mindfulness in its audience.
Girish Shambu is a professor at Canisius College who writes on cinema and the arts.