Sunday, June 2, 2013

Telephone, Theater Ninjas

(Holly Holsinger as Babette)

Whether you communicate for a living or not, the essence of connection is always in question. Did you hear what I said? If you heard, did you understand? If you understood, did you care?

Communication is a vexing process, loaded with wrong turns, misapprehensions and often only scattered, partial victories. This basic difficulty is, of course, multiplied when technology is introduced.

That’s where the aptly named Telephone, now being staged by Theater Ninjas, finds its starting place: Alexander Graham Bell calling to Watson over his acoustic telegraphy machine. From there, we meet also meet a schizophrenic woman and then listen in on a couple dozen “calls.” The last two sections are adapted from the challenging philosophical tome The Telephone Book by Avital Ronnell.

Even though it is oblique and mysterious at times, the production walks the fine line between accessibility and confusion, never entirely sliding into incomprehension. And teetering on that thin wire is exactly where this piece belongs.

For this event, the gypsy Theater Ninja troupe has landed in a downstairs room of the Masonic Temple in Ohio City. And it is a splendid physical space, the wood floor shared by actors and audience, accented by a beamed ceiling and pillars with carved decorations. Four almost-parallel seating areas are interspersed among the set’s furniture and trunks of props, creating an intimate yet oddly isolated feel.

In the first segment, Ryan Lucas is Bell and Ray Caspio is Watson, navigating their world-changing invention in their own ways. This is a witty and electrifying dialogue as we see that even the first telephonic communication was beset with confusion. Watson thinks Bell said, “Come here, I want you.”  (not “I need you.”), with all the subtext that the word “want” implies.

But Bell isn’t pinging emotionally, at one time speaking in binary code. Interacting with a wide range of technologies, from hieroglyphics to an iPad, Lucas and Caspio are a tight fit, and their celebration after the World’s First Call is a gem of choreography and timing.

In the second segment, we meet Miss Saint, or Babette, who is a patient in an asylum, suffering from telephones within her and surrounding her. Modeled on a patient of Carl Jung, Babette is a fast-flowing stream of alienation, communicating like crazy but never being understood, and repeating phrases (“Speech is silver, silence is golden”) to keep a grip on her mind.

Even though this monologue eventually seems overly long, the enthralling performance by Holly Holsinger manages to keep it compelling by never overplaying her character’s mental difficulties. Babette just sees herself as a normal person who is Socrates and is the triple owner of the world—and why can’t anybody understand that?

In the third section, we listen to snatches of calls between disembodied lovers, and others, as various modern and recently obsolete technologies murmur and crackle at us in the darkness.

This remarkable play, directed with inventive skill and sharp pacing by Jaime Bouvier, is more of an experience than a conventional theater piece. And like Rusted Heart Broadcast , which opened a couple days ago at Cleveland Public Theatre, it is difficult to do it justice in a review.

As for Telephone, among other things it asks how technology is attached to human pathology, and what altered states will emerge as technology relentlessly advances. That is a call we should answer.

Through June 15, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Ohio City Masonic Temple, 2831 Franklin, make reservations at:

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