by John Stoltenberg
You know you’re having an unorthodox experience in theater when there’s a near absence of dramatic action in front of you but an epic interplay of ideas happening in your brain. So it goes in Transmission, Gwydion Suilebhan’s curiously cognitive and rivetingly disruptive new performance piece just opened on H Street at Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The fifth of five new works produced by the first cohort of Welders, Suilebhan’s Transmission is a live, scripted disquisition delivered by the author to an audience to no more than 20 seated comfortably in well-upholstered 1930s furniture arranged around the Lab II black box. Within their reach are tables with period radios, a dish of hard candies to take, an assortment of books, and golden light aglow from table lamps and floor lamps. As we are welcomed to this genteel faux parlor, more like special guests than an audience, a scratchy recording of Artie Shaw’s 1940s tune “If I Had You”plays from the antique radios. It’s all very cozy and inviting and—given that Transmission has been promoted as “immersive” and “participatory”—utterly charming and disarming.
Soon the person the program calls The Performer (Suilebhan) appears dressed in vest and tie and begins to regale us with odd bits of history—about, for instance, old-time trains, children’s storybooks, early information technology—and tangents on such topics as brain chemistry, genetic mutation, and viruses. We learn little about who The Performer is. The sparse autobiographical details we get don’t really add up to a backstory (and I wanted to know more, especially what impelled him to this project; it seems improbably to be out of the blue, which somewhat abstracts him as a character). But we do get a perfectly clear sense of what and how he thinks—and who he thinks we are—as he talks to us familiarly, holding forth like an avuncular tutor, now and then pausing for our response to a point. Clearly he’s doing this for a reason. He wants us to be aware of something. He wants us to understand something. He wants us to think about something in a new way. But what? and why? The flow of his discourse seems free-associational. It’s all very verbal though never verbose. Maybe just maybe it’s leading us somewhere. We’re just not yet sure where.
Unlike most solo performance pieces, Transmission is conspicuously lacking in narrative. It has no arc of events or incidents with any beginning, middle, or end, and that’s exactly The Performer’s intent:
I don’t plan to tell you any stories. I’m not a storyteller. I’m…something else.
As to what Transmission is “about,” there will likely be as many interpretations as there are people fortunate to be parlor guests. But those varied takeaways will likely all turn in some way on Transmission’s central provocation: In an age of information overload, how do we know what we know and why do we believe it? Or, in the words of The Performer,
How do we take charge of which ideas we’ll allow in our minds, and how long we’ll let them stay, and whether we’ll agree to pass them on?
In Transmission, Suilebhan has undertaken what is in effect a heretical challenge to storytelling, that foundational fixture of civilization and theater in particular. And fascinatingly, Suilebhan dissects and disputes storytelling through theater. This he does on no anarchic whim. The Performer’s motivation that emerges is personal, concerned for our intellectual welfare: He truly wants us to interrogate how we unwitting rely on storytelling to comprehend and communicate whatever is true.
[D]o you know what really scares me about us all being besieged by so many stories all the time? It’s the willing suspension of disbelief. We all talk about the suspension of disbelief like it’s this virtuous act, when in fact what it really seems to be is an automatic set of brain states that get triggered whenever somebody starts relating a narrative….
Our minds, when they’re in story-listening mode, do not distinguish fact from fiction….
I do not trust stories.
An outstanding creative team makes this wholly original theater experience memorable: Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis gives voice to a roomful of radios; Experience and Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills settles us in and unsettles us as well; Properties Master and Scenic Designer Jacy Barber takes us credibly back to the late 30s and early 40s; Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny attires The Performer like a dapper don. And in the part of The Host who greets guests and facilitates a conversation following The Performer’s presentation, Performance Dramaturg Jordana Fraider expertly keeps us at ease even as our heads begin to spin.
Everything about Gwydion Suilebhan’s Transmission is refined, cultivated, seemingly simply a courteous inquiry, no more than a pleasant parlor chat about this and that. And then it turns out to be a Molotov cocktail to the mind.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Transmission plays through May 28, 2016 at The Welders performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.