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An Ode to Family, Memory, and Chekhov at OTB

Weaving dance, theater, film, live music, and unassuming candor together, the Murphy/Lachow Company produced a lighthearted evening of hilarity and nostalgia. The Man Who Can Forget Anything, presented at On the Boards October 9-12, 2014, used Anton Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters, as a jumping off point for exploring the themes of family, life as artists, and, in a metaphysical sense, the way we process our memories.

Multiple threads of plot and discussion wove through the evening. One followed Megan Murphy and Gregg Lachow, founders of the company and parents to Charlie and Sam Lachow (also members of the company), as they prepare Charlie, their youngest son, to continue their legacy. Another plot tracked a production of Three Sisters from audition to touring, albeit out of order and made unclear by layers of hopes and memories. Meanwhile, a line of film footage visited scenes from the play as though projected directly from the director’s imagination. Multiple strands of internal dialogue, performer backstory, and direct address to the audience filled out the tapestry. The show relied most heavily on acting and film to create the world on stage, with dance appearing as interludes and dream-like sequences that both separated and tied together sections of the work. Theater and film elements seamlessly flowed in and out of each other: conversations on stage were continued in film, and dances begun on screen were mirrored and pushed forward by the dancers on stage.

The Man Who II_photo by Eric Maas
The Man Who Can Forget Anything
Photo by Eric Maas

The piece opened on Murphy, sitting in a lone chair under a single spotlight, reading scattered and vague phrases from cards, hinting at scenes that “may or may not be in the show tonight.” The stage went black, and the lights came up to reveal Maggie Brown, delicate and girlish, feigning the damsel in distress at the top of a ladder. “Ezra!” she called, and the stage went dark. As the lights came up again, Annette Toutonghi was revealed gathering the cards scattered by Murphy, calling a frazzled “Not yet!” This structure of short vignettes piled on top of each other, cutting in and out, and returning back to old stories to carry the audience through the performance like waves—sometimes frantic, but also comforting.

One standout moment featured an act of memorization by Sarah Harlett. Instead of simply performing a monologue of the Three Sisters, Harlett depicted the actual process of memorization—mouthing the words to herself, checking the book for accuracy, and finally reciting the entire passage in silence and taking a triumphant bow. Immediately following, Toutonghi performed an effusive reenactment as an adoring fan. The scene did more than pull hearty laughter from the audience; it presented valuable commentary on artists as audience members, and audience members as active participants in theater. This section was overlaid with a musical interlude of “True Love’s Smile,” a sweetly evocative ballad reminiscent of the nostalgic love songs of Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter but composed by Brown, with lyrics in collaboration with Sam Lachow. The entire show was accompanied live by a five piece band playing Brown’s compositions.

The dance sequences, along with some of the dialogue, were charmingly casual, blurring the border between scripted and unscripted, set choreography and insouciant improvisation. Loose hands and feet generally characterized the movement, with the internal energy and impetus simply flowing through the outer limbs. This relaxed technique clearly captured the nonchalance that the group cultivates, and met the performers at a technical level that was achievable for all. At the same time, such a relaxed style also requires an exceptional understanding of the body and how it moves in order to be fully effective. In this, dancer Ezra Dickinson stood out clearly, displaying an intuitive grasp of the strength and ability to yield that is required to move weightlessly. In contrast, Marissa Rae Niederhauser, performed with a noticeably more rigid quality—well suited to her playful solo en pointe in a large, simple hoop skirt.

The Man Who Can Forget Anything Photo by Gregg Lachow
The Man Who Can Forget Anything
Photo by Gregg Lachow

As the company has grown, so have the Lachow children. In The Man Who Can Forget Anything, Charlie grappled with coming of age in a community of artists and having to decide for himself if he’d like to follow in those footsteps or forge a new path. Much of the story returned to the idea that the tradition of art Murphy/Lachow have started may not be continued by their progeny. In this thread of the narrative, they displayed a talent for flippantly raising serious questions, like how to prepare your children for your demise. They told the story with a careful balance between a side-splitting set of in-home films featuring bumbling parents and an apathetic teen, and poignant on-stage scenes in which Charlie delivered the lines of greatest wisdom, quoting from Three Sisters: “The things we take to be serious, meaningful, of great importance—a time will come when they will be forgotten or seem of no importance.”

The performance takes its name from the quirky filmed scene in which the cast is waiting on a train station in New York. Gregg loses his hat to the wind, and it is caught by a stranger (Dickinson) who displays a special talent to forget anything he is told. After a deceptively short (or is it long?) time spent on the train platform with him, Toutonghi immediately proclaims him a member of the cast, despite his unique ability. The irony of this choice—casting a man known for his forgetfulness into a play—is just another layer of the production’s richly laid out probing of the inner workings of memory. Murphy and Lachow present these explorations and questions not only through the material of the performance, but in the structure itself—the way the storylines are braided together, taken out of context, and reassembled in a new order. Many artists and companies would do well to copy this page out of their book and harness the potential for a work’s structure to enhance the way the story or message is communicated and perceived. Every piece of The Man Who Can Forget Anything is an ode to memory, and more importantly, to legacy.

More information about Murphy/Lachow and The Man Who Can Forget Anything is available here.