The Performant: It's so magic

From “Ghost Ship Rodez” at Z-Space

Terry Allen’s Ghost Ship Rodez and Christian Cagigal’s “The Collection” put a spell on it.

It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but there really is magic in a performance piece in which all of the disparate elements get pulled together just so, and suddenly the show becomes much greater than the mere sum of its parts. Crackling with an electric energy, a show infused with that elusive jolt provokes an integrated intellectual and emotional response that pervades the body entire, and lingers long after the lights come up. But it’s a fickle friend, this magic, and attempting to corral it too earnestly is the surest way to have it slip completely away, like sand pouring through determinedly clenched fingers.

Such a fate befell Terry and Jo Harvey Allen’s “Ghost Ship Rodez” at Z-Space over the weekend.

All of the elements for greatness were there: compelling subject matter (Antonin Artaud confined to the hold of a ship bound for France in a straitjacket and the throes of narcotics withdrawal and madness), Jo Harvey Allen as Artaud’s agitated inner monologue and outer demons, original music composed and performed live by Terry Allen, and a suspended sculpture of the titular ghost ship, whose fluttering sails served as a projection screen and whose hull was constructed from the forbidding body of an iron cot, evoking the one Artaud spent his voyage chained to. All of these aspects appeal greatly to my aesthetic, so why didn’t the performance move me as much as the press release did?

Part of the problem lay in the staging. Z Space lends itself well to dance performances with aerial components or energetic theatrical ensembles who hurl themselves into every available corner, but so much of “Ghost Ship” was static—the musicians trapped in one corner of the enormous stage, pinned practically against the wall, Jo Harvey Allen’s unadorned exposition, moving only occasionally from center stage to hover on and around the rectangular platform positioned below the exquisitely proportioned ghost ship sculpture floating forever above the fray.

The live music, instead of supporting the ebb and flow of the narrative, often overpowered it with a Texas twang and an electric keyboard that stuck out awkwardly among the accompanying strings. Neither Terry’s lyrics nor Jo’s monologues had much chance against its distracting wail, and would have been better served by tinkering with the levels. These drawbacks might have been overcome by a dose of that intangible stage mojo, but its lack resulted in a performance in which the raw power of Artaud’s truly visionary madness was distilled into a bloodless brew.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the show that best made a friend of that mysterious theatre magic for me this weekend was, in fact, a magician’s show. Local magic-maker and teller of tales, Christian Cagigal, parlayed his craft to a sold-out house at the EXIT Theatre Saturday night with his latest solo venture, “The Collection”. To call these forays “magic shows” doesn’t quite describe the charged blend of myth and mindfuck that Cagigal brings to his art.

Though surrounded onstage by a virtual cabinet of curiosities stuffed to the dusty brim with Fiji Mermaids, Ouija Boards, preserved remains of man and beast, battered toys, and intricately carved talismans and thingamajigs, Cagigal’s confidently understated, lo-fi performance nonetheless eschewed ornamentation, as with very few props he managed to open a gaping portal in the imaginations and willingly suspended disbelief of his oddience the unsettling effects of which lasted long beyond the night of the show. And if that’s not magic, I don’t know what it is.

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