M-34 and Cloud of Fools have created an original work exploring classic texts.
Photos by Jill Steinberg
Cloud of Fools is a physical theater group working to "tell stories that transcend language, nation—and time itself." In their new piece called All That Dies and Rises, director James Rutherford and choreographer Laura Butler Rivera have brought performers, original musical compositions and excerpted texts from Strindberg, Dostoyevsky and more to create an innovative performance about theater, storytelling and seeing.
The play begins on an all-white set in the midst of a black theater, and the attire of the performers mimics that simple, streamlined white-and-black palette so that their movement is what really pops. The "tennis court" style of seating, with audience seated on two opposite sides, keeps the actors in the center of the space and within the same world as their spectators while still leaving them walls to play off of. Having set this stage with such precision, the devised movements take on added significance.
Some of the gestures are obviously mimetic, whether pantomiming animal behavior or depicting a specific emotion, but many sections of the play are more abstract. When the performance starts, the spoken monologues and group physical actions are completely separate, but grow more integrated throughout until, in the final few sections, language and movement are performed together. It's an approach that takes nothing about how theater is "usually" performed for granted.
Most likely, you will not recognize the sources of most of the spoken text in the piece, excerpted from writers as diverse as Charles Bukowski and Aravind Adyanthaya, but the importance and gravitas of the selected pieces of language always comes through. Much of it is consciously self-referential, whether discussing the nature of theater, writing or perceiving the world. Some of it is even set to music composed by David Skeist, a series of entrancing choral compositions that are one of the highlights of the production.
While it is difficult to articulate a literal plot for All That Dies Also Rises, there are a few scenes that stand out. The early monologue from Gertrude Stein about the "emotional time" of a play and of watching a play, accompanied by the company of actors imitating animals, is particularly powerful, as is the silent scene in which two performers struggle to raise the rest of the company to standing as they constantly fall back down or wander away. There is a great sense of interdependence among the performers throughout, each actor relying on the others to move or to create the next shape or action.
And then there is the penultimate scene of the play, a performance of "A Conversation with my Father" by Grace Paley, which features the only real dialogue and linear storytelling of the entire show, as well as its only set pieces—a chair, a rug, a lamp. It is as though the company has built up to this moment by starting with the most basic of gestures and fragmented text until a story finally appears, and with this approach, every element of the scene is a choice, whether it is a piece of furniture or two characters who actually have a defined relationship and speak to each other.
Clearly, All That Dies and Rises takes a decent familiarity with a variety of theater theories and with classic literature to understand and appreciate, and even so it is difficult to talk about a meaning. Still, it feels like a complete piece rather than just a series of theater exercises, a difficult feat in the world of experimental physical theater. It will challenge everything you think you know about theater, but for those up to such a challenge, it is a fascinating work of art.
All That Dies and Rises plays at the IATI Theater through December 21. For more information, check out their website.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.