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Review: Mondo Bizarro's The Way at Midnight

The group's visceral original production is pure theater



Mondo Bizarro, literally "strange world," creates conceptual experiences that can leave audiences wondering where they are, in what time frame events are happening and what exactly is going on. But that dramatic approach also can allow freedom for internal exploration and interpretation.

The Way at Midnight, presented recently at the Contemporary Arts Center's cavernous warehouse space, is pure theater: a completely visceral experience that minimally relies on a comprehensible narrative and dialogue to communicate its message. The show incorporates diverse artistic elements, from a visual installation to projection mapping, live and recorded music and animation, as well as two performers playing seven interconnected characters from different time periods, demonstrating how "legacies live in our bodies and affect our lives."

  A helmeted Spanish conquistador (Nick Slie) is seen juggling a map of the known universe against a panorama with rigged ship sails onto which are projected colorful kaleidoscopes, perhaps of a religious nature. He's claiming new lands for royalty while destroying native cultures.

  "When you kill, that person lives inside you forever," the conquistador says.

  The explorer morphs into a European peasant, Renaud, still carrying the enormous map. Renaud and his old friend Izzy (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham) are drawn into a forest where they discover a casket and wonder what should be said for a memorial service. At a loss for words, they practice by officiating at each other's funerals, suddenly realizing they aren't sure who died. It could be anybody, even themselves.

  What defines a life well lived? What would be written on your epitaph?

  "Go ahead, have a little conversation with your ancestors. Now white people, this might be rough, 'cause our ancestors did some f—ked up shit. Can't just burn some sage over slavery, rape and genocide, can you?" Pepper-Cunningham says.

  The characters believe they are surrounded by invisible dead people and haunted by their deeds and that every act of our ancestors has been incorporated into our collective DNA. What impact does the conquistador still have on the American soldier and an anarchist hacker?

  "What, we gotta go to Mars next? It wasn't enough they sent us to Korea, to Vietnam. Now we gotta go annihilate the Martians too?" says Emilio, Izzy's war- time lover.

  Pepper-Cunningham is an astonishing performance artist with an ability to change characters almost within the blink of an eye. Acting with her entire body, she commands attention. Slie is equally intense, adding a powerful, athletic dynamism to his performance.

  Peter Bowling's evocative soundscape included original compositions, Renaissance and Turkish music, and Peggy Lee's seductive rendition of "Fever."

  The creators of The Way at Midnight describe their reactions to climate change, racism, colonization and gentrification thus: "You can freak out, clench, hold tightly to your past notions and try to exert control. ... Or you can look around and — open — see what's there and allow that you might be changed by it."

  The Way at Midnight is a thought-provoking journey through Western civilization that asks the question: What makes a life well lived? — MARY RICKARD

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