SUBLIME EXISTENTIALISM

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Pre-recorded audio of footsteps loudly clacking fill the performance space. Eric Pitsenbarger steps in sync to the audio, and for a moment it seems Pitsenbarger might be about to break out into a tap solo, but instead they swiftly leave the space and assume the role of a stagehand. We are soon introduced to the characters of Mandy and Bebe, played by Nancy Cranbourne and Wade Madsen. Mandy functions as a spotlight-loving, bold performer, curious to figure out exactly what she is doing and where she is going in life, orating her every thought along the way. Bebe is her cat-like companion, frequently mimicking Mandy’s movements and offering advice from time to time. 

This is It, written and directed by Wade Madsen, is the first half of Madsen’s evening-length show, From the Ridiculous to the Sublime. In this work, the behind-the-scenes elements of theater are highlighted, and these elements have more control than the performers. The disembodied voice of a technical director instructs through the speakers, “Let’s take that last cue from the top” several times, interrupting whatever is happening on stage. Eric Pitsenbarger’s character turns into a rogue stagehand, failing to leave the space before the lights come up, moving props that were not asked for, and eventually breaking out into song and dance. Coupled with the show’s existential and religious references, the all-controlling technical elements take on a god-like role. The performers obey the voice from above, sometimes confused as to why the show is running in this way, but never disobedient. While Mandy, who is determined to pinpoint the nature of her existence, can see the stagehand and question their presence, Bebe never sees Pitsenbarger. This presents two approaches to the world—one is eager for understanding and confused by the unknown, the other faithfully adheres to the rules of the world without question.

The second piece of the night is choreographed by Wade Madsen in collaboration with dancers Jamie Karlovich, Sean Tomerlin, Calie Swedberg, Chloe Albin, Amy Ross, Nahshon, and Nicole Leung. In Looking Back at Itself, dancers wear exaggerated makeup of deep-set wrinkles and furrowed brows. Grey hair spray extends from the tops of their head to their upper bodies of their costumes, creating the illusion that a layer of dust has settled over each dancer, as if they stood under a crumbling ceiling. It seems Madsen may be carefully intertwining the process of growing older to an inevitable connection to a presence from above. 

Photo by Jim Coleman.

Expression of the face is a huge component of this piece. While the choreography is varied in dynamic, ranging from fast, rhythmic stomping to drawn-out legato movement along the diagonal, the dancers’ faces are perpetually in slow motion. In the beginning of the piece they perform exaggerated frowns, setting a dismal yet theatrical tone for the work. Later, they embody what seems like the faces of people that were told to look like they are having a good time, when in reality they are miserable. These faces are accompanied by a kind of awkward social dance movement that is also set in slow motion. The pairing of this movement with these faces is both intentionally cringe-worthy and oddly fascinating. 

The whole of this piece exudes the feeling that the group is collectively yearning for something they will never attain. Hands and arms grasp in desperation, and there is never resolution to what is reached for. The movement carries heavy momentum as the work progresses, and nothing is allowed to settle. Dancers breakout in segments of solo that are fleeting, lasting only a short period of time before the performer is then swept back into the movement of the group or offstage. At one point, the dancers complete a phrase in a circular canon before cycling away again. A looming feeling of impending pain lurks over the atmosphere of this work, as though the performers fear some sort of inescapable future. 

In a particularly interesting moment, the audio of the clacking shoes resurfaces. The sound hovers over the performers on stage, panning to different speakers in order to create the effect that someone is walking above them from one side of the stage to the other. The dancers chase this sound while huddled in a group, the same look of slow-motion worry stuck on their faces as their focus is directed up. Paired alongside audio that includes a lecture unpacking organized religion, this scene portrays a group of people riddled with concern for what’s above them. As the audience, we observe that they cannot see nor control where the footsteps are coming from, yet they chase the noise with fear in their eyes, inevitably unable to pinpoint where this upstairs entity is in space and what it means for the group.

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime presents two stories, both of which question the universe of the performers. Utilizing both humor and grief as access points, Wade Madsen and his collaborators navigate complex themes of aging, religion, and existential meaning with skilled nuance and apt metaphor.

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