TENT, a theater company in residence at Perishable Theatre during August, is presenting Your Shipwreck Is No Disaster! (through August 26). The amorphous, loosey-goosey presentation is a new theater piece ostensibly inspired by 19th-century artist Thèodore Gèricault’s painting of writhing contortions, The Raft of the Medusa. Any similarity to such brow-furrowed, fraught Romanticism has been left far behind.
About an hour long, the performance is a play more in the sense of merrily cavorting than in the sense of polished theater. We get to watch a half-dozen actors playing around in the spirit of kids throwing together a show for friends and family on a rainy afternoon.
The informality begins on the sidewalk outside Perishable, where six actors in orange jumpsuits take turns drumming up ticket sales — $10 or $15, your choice.
Led inside, we’re seated in a prop-packed theater space, with hundreds of photographs of the performers dangling in rows. Only 35 seats are tucked away to the side, like an afterthought. The opportunities of Perishable’s black box have been scoped out and utilized: a pit, fenced off with pipes, yawns at the edge of the audience. Above that is a bank of light bulbs, mostly off and dim to begin with, that we know we will eventually be squinting at. There are intriguing objects here and there: an axe stuck into a board; several small TV screens, one showing a solitary seated woman.
What proceeds is in development, so the actors are still shaping what they have to say. Passages that will end up being long speeches are read from notes or sheets of paper. This is experimental theater, so Bunsen burners are hissing, figuratively, and test tubes are poured into rather shakily. For example, actor Brian J. Lilienthal is creating a monologue about when he had a job selling coffins and burial plots, so we get to witness his psychodrama, flatly related so far, about taking advantage of people.
Things get off to a Kafkaesque start as Tom Lipinski sits before an interrogator (Matt McAdon). Gradually we learn that the inquiry has something to do with a missing woman. Tom’s character has eaten her and the questioner wants him to get his story straight, for some reason — “They’ll never believe that,” he occasionally says. That’s probably so, since the account gets more and more surreal and random, introducing a walk along the bottom of the sea and a little mahogany box found there. The unquantifiable is under scrutiny, as the official now and then interrupts the account to have him breathe or spit into a plastic cup that is then weighed.
Get the idea? Theater companies and performers from Mabou Mines to Spalding Gray, as well as stand-up comics, have long developed their work in this fashion, audience by audience.
Before the interrogation is far along, Peter Ksander interrupts things to orient us, explaining the basic attempt of the evening. Most cultures, he says, have their own creation myth, a story of how the first human beings came into existence. Most also come up with a tale of destruction, of starting over after the first people sufficiently mess things up and deserve to be nearly wiped out. Peter constructs an elaborate visual aid representing a flood, with which he seriously annoys a string of paper dolls he has cut out. Such reminders of degeneration and self-destruction peek out of the proceedings every so often, enough to be considered a theme. So too the matter of population decline and extermination: some of those photographs are snatched down every so often.