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The Woman in the Attic, Archipelago Theatre's new production (hosted by Duke Performances and seen in Duke's Sheafer Theater on May 5), is a remarkable achievement. Working theater, music, movement, and visual effects into a seamless mesh, this piece is a deeply satisfying hour and a half of performance art.
Directed by Ellen Hemphill, The Woman in the Attic was created by Hemphill and writer Nor Hall, with the collaboration of Allison Leyton-Brown, who composed the music. In addition to her own compelling music and lyrics, she arranged three well-known Neil Young songs for accordion (David DiGiuseppe), piano (Jill Christenson), cello (Joe Kwon), and percussion (Nathan Logan). These three songs, thrillingly sung by the cast on stage, contributed greatly to the show's powerful emotional tide – especially, I would guess, for viewers of a certain age, for whom these songs – including "When you see me fly away without you/Shadow on the things you know/Feathers fall around you…" – already form the soundtrack to important life experiences.
Saying what this work is "about" is nearly impossible, as it does not depend on a plot that gets you from A to B. In its ambiguity and complexity, it is "about" many things. But you could say it is "about" the ways we silence our singing voices when we cage ourselves and the ones we love with rigid rules and routines – and how we can burn those away and free ourselves to love and create again. It is an old idea, one of a handful of ideas significant enough for art theater, but this is a fresh and startling exploration of it.
The setting is an old house, inhabited by a long-married couple whose happy beginnings have calcified into bleak, rancorous monotony. Hovering above their sufferings, in Jan Chambers' fine set design, is the tender spirit of all they've mislaid and long for – the fresh uprushing joys of love and life and creativity – the woman in the attic. Moving around the edges of the scene is the Narrator, who sometimes morphs from an empathetic commenting observer to a representation of the controlling past, exercising his power over the present.
All the actors are very fine, and they form a well-balanced ensemble. Jay O'Berski, who plays the Narrator, has such a powerful presence that he sometimes overwhelms lesser mortals, but Kathryn Williams as the Woman and Terry Beck as the Man are equally powerful. Charlotte Griffin, as the Woman in the Attic, does not yet have the same degree of stage intensity, but the sheer visual contrast between her and the others serves to increase the authority of her performance. Disappointing Time has weighted and worn the Narrator; it has molded the Woman's mobile brown flesh to a gold-bronze mask and stilled her dancing feet; it has weathered the Man gray and knobbly like an old fencepost and dimmed the light of his adventurous mind. But the spirit in the attic is unmarked Youth, her pink dress swirling around her pearly skin, her pale pink slippers soundless beneath her feather-light movements. Wordless, she cries like a bird as she dashes against the caged humans.
Only rarely have I seen performances where all the elements were so tightly knitted into one artistic whole. All the components in The Woman in the Attic – the poetic language, the dramatic vignettes, the emotive dances, the series of images like a film, the music and songs, which are as well-ordered as a record album – are equally well-developed and complete in themselves, and all are equally necessary to the integrity of the piece. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this work is that, although it has no narrative arc, it does have a fully developed dramatic arc. There are snatches of story only – in some wonderful language – and no more is needed. Contained in that telling set, with its meanings and metaphors intensified by Ross Kolman's umbrageous lighting, the images, the motions, the music, and the body language combine and combust in a volcanic flow of emotion, sweeping the audience through catharsis to greater understanding as the flames rise and the ululating cries of the Woman in the Attic echo around us.
The Woman in the Attic continues through May 28. See our openings page for details.
Duke Performances and Archipelago Theatre present The Woman in the Attic Wednesday-Saturday, May 11-14, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, May 19-21, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, May 26-28, at 8 p.m. in Sheafer Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus, Durham, North Carolina. $20 ($5 Duke students with ID and $12 non-Duke students). 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Duke Performances: http://www.duke.edu/web/dukeperfs/. Archipelago Theatre: http://www.archipelagotheatre.org/ [inactive 2/06].
Duke Performances and Archipelago Theatre will present The Woman in the Attic, an experimental theater piece created by long-time collaborators Ellen Hemphill and Nor Hall and directed and choreographed by Hemphill, May 5-28 in Sheafer Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus, Durham, NC. The show also features original music composed and arranged by Allison Leyton-Brown, set and costume design by Jan Chambers, and lighting design by Ross Kolman.
The cast includes Terry Beck, Charlotte Griffin, Jay O’Berski, and Kathy Williams; and the musicians include Jil Christenson, David DiGiuseppe, Joe Kwon, and Nathan Logan.
Duke Performances writes, “The Woman in the Attic is an exploration of that which we have set aside: the parts of us that once nourished inspiration, sustained creativity, felt all things to be possible — but also, perhaps, the parts of us that at some time felt too dangerous or vulnerable or out of step to leave exposed. It is a look at the invisible shadow of that which we know we are, even as it coexists with the seemingly more concrete illusion of that which we appear to be. Glimpses of our silenced creative spirit appear to all of us from time to time, reminding us that somewhere it still lives. That is the woman in the attic.
“This original production ... is a story of a couple in a house. Through the Narrator (Jay O’Berski), we come to see how the Man (Terry Beck) and the Woman (Kathy Williams) have become trapped in their own places and ideas of themselves in the house, and in their lives together. They have forgotten the part of them that holds memory, joy, meaning, isolation, dream and possibility. They have forgotten The Woman in the Attic (Charlotte Griffin).”
Director/choreographer Ellen Hemphill told Duke Performances: “Terry Beck …, Kathy Williams …, [and] Jay O’Berski … have worked before with Archipelago Theatre. I taught Charlotte Griffin many years ago at the American Dance Festival and love her work now as a dancer and choreographer. All of these people are great performers, Terry and Charlotte have a great dance background, and Jay and Kathy a solid theater background, and I feel I am lucky to have the crème de la crème working with me.”
Hemphill added, “We have been thinking of the theme of isolation in society and then in the ‘home’ for over two years. We first thought of a play that would have been simultaneous solos that had the working title, One Is Fiction. But that slowly evolved into The Woman in the Attic, with readings from the turn of the century about how women were ‘put away.’ Instead of the literal woman, we worked with the theme of the feminine aspect of both men and women that is put away. That also applies to the world at large — nature destroyed, plight of women and children globally, war, etc. — and the absence of a nurturing concept in society. However, in this piece, we have decided to focus simply on the couple in the house, and hope the metaphor for the more global aspect is simply understood.”
She added, “The [show’s original] music is composed by Allison Leyton Brown. There are three old pieces by Neil Young that are arranged for the piece, and the rest of the songs and scoring is by Allison. The music carries the emotion and the meaning of the character’s inner worlds in the piece. The instruments are: piano, cello, accordion, and percussion. The music also lends itself to movement (Ellen Hemphill choreographs, but the cast also helps) and as in all Archipelago pieces, movement is an integral part of the piece, both gestural theater and dance moments. Allison is a brilliant composer, and we are lucky to have her away from her busy New York City schedule. She will also compose for the Theater Studies performance of The Trojan Women in the fall, which I am directing.”
Hemphill said, “[Jan Chambers’ set] design is a simple representation of a house, a tree, and steps to an attic (also there). The lighting (by Ross Kolman) represents both past and present in the household. I don’t want to give too much away about the play by describing each aspect of the design as the play progresses, if that is OK.”
Will this piece be symbolic, like much of Archipelago Theatre’s previous work? “I guess if you are looking for symbols,” Hemphill replied, “the birds in the yard, the tree, the things in the attic, the dust that gathers on things. The history of the nightingale played an early part in the work on the play, how ‘she’ was forced to not sing, only sing at night, various myths. So, we have kept the symbol of the bird in the piece.”
Duke Performances and Archipelago Theatre present The Woman in the Attic Thursday-Saturday, May 5-7, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, May 11-14, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, May 19-21, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, May 26-28, at 8 p.m. in Sheafer Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus, Durham, North Carolina. $20 ($5 Duke students with ID and $12 non-Duke students). 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Duke Performances: http://www.duke.edu/web/dukeperfs/. Archipelago Theatre: http://www.archipelagotheatre.org/ [inactive 2/06].