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Preview: Splish and How to Build a Forest

Two interactive art pieces — one at a surreal mermaid show, the other in an indoor forest



Jade Brandt and Nina Nichols had talked for a year about creating a mermaid attraction art installation out of a shipping container when they asked New York artist/writer Jeff Stark if he had heard of the Brookdale Lodge. In its heyday, the Santa Cruz, California, hillside hotel — with a stream running through its lobby — featured a mermaid show in a massive pool that had underwater windows allowing views from the bar. As the celebrity retreat and tourist attraction lost its appeal over the years, it garnered rumors of haunting and other glittery-gone-tawdry lore.

  "Not only had I heard about it," Stark says, "I had been there."

  Stark had visited the hillside lodge while researching a travel book. For Nichols, Brandt, Stark and San Francisco artist Jesse Roadkill, it became the inspiration for a fantastical mermaid attraction and masque drama, an antiquated form of theater in which the audience enters a lavishly designed set and mingles with the characters. Two years of planning and a couple of weeks of building come together in Splish, a one-weekend-only show created by artists associated with The Music Box, Black Forest Fancies, California-based Cardboard Institute of Technology and Shadow Parks Department.

  Splish's mermaid attraction has a large tank for female and drag queen mermaids, bars, hotel rooms, a boat, kelp forests, legions of jellyfish and more, much of it made out of recycled materials. More than 70 artists created the aquatic setting in a warehouse space. The show features 20 performers, including singer Meschiya Lake, who plays Pesca, a nightclub singer at The Show and Tail who performs with showgirl "Mermettes."

  The audience enters the attraction and follows a Midwestern girl named Polly who wants to become a mermaid performer. Stark says the show is The Little Mermaid meets Joe Eszterhas' Showgirls, and much of it is seen through a queer lens. The context is adult in nature, and no one under 18 will be admitted. Audience members are encouraged to costume for the show.

  The attraction is described as being just outside New Orleans, and Splish is meant to exist like the French Quarter — a gleaming beacon of entertainment and permissiveness from afar, and a more complex mix of illusion and reality in the flesh.

  At the Contemporary Arts Center, Katie Pearl, Lisa D'Amour (author of Detroit, recently presented at Southern Rep) and Shawn Hall, present How to Build a Forest. The piece was inspired by the loss of 100 trees at the Northshore home of one of D'Amour's relatives during Hurricane Katrina.

  "I was haunted by the loss of those trees," D'Amour says.

  The artists began their work by looking at natural and industry-driven deforestation. Over the course of eight hours, seven performers use fabric and synthetic materials to create a forest on an empty 19-foot-high staging area. Brendan Connelly provides soundscapes, and visitors can enter the forest during the performance. While the eight-hour piece has several time signatures within its long arc, it reflects a slow natural cycle of growth, and it's an environment for meditation on the human and natural cycles of consumption and rebuilding.

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