Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company present Mother of Smoke, a world premiere devised work directed by Walkabout artistic director Thom Pasculli. Combining existing texts with original text, music, and movement, Mother of Smoke juxtaposes the stories of the fall of Troy and Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and attempts to connect those themes to one another and to contemporary American life. Unfortunately, these attempts are largely unsuccessful, and the resulting performance feels both disjointed and disorienting.
There is certainly a clear connection between the selected stories. Both The Cherry Orchard and the fall of Troy (represented here with scenes from both the Iliad and the Aeneid) feature groups of women who are faced with the destruction of their ancestral home. The two groups respond in entirely opposite ways—an outpouring of grief from the Trojan women and a complete denial of the situation from the women of the Cherry Orchard. And in today’s turbulent political climate, it’s easy to see how contemporary women would connect to these two stories, to the overwhelming sense of violence and tragedy the fictional women feel. The concept for the work, then, is not an unreasonable one. It is in the execution that the production suffers.
What Mother of Smoke does is find the most horrific and painful elements of both these stories and of our contemporary reality and amplifies them to the point that they begin to warp. Violence is played out on a vivid and epic scale. The show’s dance/movement elements are explosive and erratic. Every text and story focuses on some unspeakable horror. And there is screaming, so much screaming. All this happens quickly and without any attempt to transition or make connections between scenes. The overall effect for the viewer is of having a fever dream, complete with weak and sometimes confusing connections between elements and a constant barrage of sensory overload. Abstraction can do much to make us feel emotions that cannot be reached through direct, linear storytelling, but Mother of Smoke is simply upsetting from start to finish, without any real emotional nuance or insight to make the ninety-minute journey worth it.
What makes the show’s disappointing nature especially unfortunate is that it features some talented performers. I’ve seen Emma Ladji and Kelsey Shipley perform before and been wildly impressed by them both, and they deliver solid acting work as Dido and Liubov, respectively (although Shipley is entirely too young for the role). Stephanie Shum shows promise as the soothsayer Cassandra and in an intense monologue directed at white feminists. But it’s hard to appreciate these women’s talents in the context of such a harsh and unforgiving theatrical environment.
Mother of Smoke leaves its audience with no glimmer of hope. Instead, the final moments of the play are dedicated to the death of Dido, who throws herself on a burning funeral pyre after her lover Aeneas leaves her. Dido and Liubov are two of the most tragic figures in Western literature, and Mother of Smoke throws them together onstage and lets their tragedies explode in vivid detail. Yet not much is gained in the explosion, and even less can be found among the resulting rubble. Mother of Smoke offers a lot of sorrow without much substance, and for this reason, I cannot recommend it.
Location: The Broadway at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Dates: March 23 – April 15, 2017
Times: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays at 8pm
Tickets: $20. Available at the Red Tape Theatre website.
All photos by Austin D. Oie.