Love and Information

It was a packed house Friday night at Fells Point Corner Theater as the theater opened Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information.”  There were very few open seats, the audience was engaged, often leaning forward, laughing and throwing their hands up in the air in sheer joy.  I am sorry you weren’t there, the energy was electric, much like the illuminations, live QR Codes in the lobby, and stellar projections during the performance.

If you are unfamiliar with the script, it can be a bit confusing.  Billed as a “kaleidoscopic play of short scenes addressing contemporary issues about knowledge, technology and communication, and our capacity for love.” Kaleidoscope?  Vague categories?  Love too?  What is up with this description?  The play actually is a compilation of scenes.  The text includes tons, and the director, cast, and crew select several and piece them together in a way that makes sense for the story they are trying to tell.  There are some conditions, like this one has to be included, or one about depression has to be in it; but all in all it is kind of up for interpretation.  The cast is only 9 actors doing over 100 parts in short clips that range from 30 seconds to three minutes.  The whole production though is only 90 minutes without intermission, so it seems to go by at a rather rapid clip.

Since the structure of this is loose, it will be impossible to discuss characters.  Instead, I am going to begin with the set and structure.  The set is minimalistic and extremely usable- it needs to be for the set up and take down of over twenty different scenes.  A simple table, some chairs, a projection screen.  Michael Vincent makes it utilitarian and keeps it in a wash of gray and white to not only illuminate the theme of a cold calculating future, but allow the lights to wash and change the colorization the scene (Light & Sound Design by David Crandall).  I only wish the scenes where characters were laying down were elevated slightly, from my seat I struggled to see them where they were placed on the stage.

And let’s not forget the fabulous projections on the back that sometimes become so entrancing you find yourself studying them more than the actors and skit going on in front of it.  Chris Uehlinger is the man to book if you want technologically advanced custom images.  His spoofs of Instagram and other social media sites are delightful, ironic, and double-take worthy of the real thing.  His rendering of the galaxy and stars that are “2.8 million years away” are just breathtaking.  The God and Heaven sequence also took my breath away; these were just astounding from all angles.

Maggie Flanigan is also up for the challenge of making things double purposed.  Her modern and easy costumes all have to be basic to shift into a new character, sometimes with absolutely no down time.  She incorporates a neutral palette and well-placed accessories to tell the story and identify each individual in each scene.

The opening sketch, about brain studies on chickens, with Autumn Koehnlein, Isaiah Mason Harvey and Williard Brewington is a rather interesting and engaging opening.  The symbolism of the orange for a brain, especially as one of the “scientists” peels it, separates it, and subsequently eats it, is one that sets a tone for the show.  Buckle in, it is going to be a ride.

Williard Brewington III is at his finest playing “the child who cannot feel pain,” but I think back and remember him best as a family man in a fedora, with his arm casually draped around his wife’s shoulder.  His easy laid back vibe is visceral.  Isaiah Mason Harvey is either included in more skits than most of his ensemble cast mates, or he is just so amazing and glorious to watch, I felt like he was always in front of me.  I think his stand-outs include a sequence as a subway rider with PTSD having a flashback, or a man putting an elephant on the stairs in his memory house.  Honestly, he is amazing and so committed to each and every persona I seemed to be looking and waiting for him to return to the stage.

Nina Kearin is bubbly and flaky and fun.  Her characters range from a talk show host with too much enthusiasm, to having a god-like existential crisis with a friend.  Her infectious energy is a shot in the arm for all the scenes she graces.  Carolyn Koch in intense and emphatic, her hair catches the highlights from celestial projections, and her stare can melt icebergs, or hearts, whichever stand in her way.

Autumn Koehnlein is just adorable as a scientist too excited about cutting open baby chicken’s skulls, or brushing her teeth and asking the big questions like “is that what you think about when we do it?”  Megan Livingston is fabulous as a linguist who is trying to explain that language is fluid and English isn’t the “right” one, and as a woman just trying to do some yoga but the bitch next to her won’t stop spewing some extra objectionable opinions.  But her tender moment of the night is the woman asking for a time frame from a doctor, her diagnosis obviously terminal to some degree.  Her gentle gestures here suggest her heartbreak, and it is almost too much to watch.

Michael Makar’s hair does some of his acting for him.  I am just being silly, but his hair would often be tousled or standing on end to punctuate his already stunning scenes.  He is awesome as a silent film star (think Chaplin with the text on the screen behind you), but will always be ingrained in my memory as a leather clad dog for his Dom.  Jess Rivera is her engaging and endearing self as a sort of “bad Santa” with back-up elves donning ukuleles.  I loved her though at the hairdresser’s trying to explain her infertility.  Caitlin Weaver is lovely as well, whether she is settling herself in over a cup of coffee to divulge secrets, or placing things in that memory house with Isaiah.

If I were to conjecture on what it means, I would rely slightly on the Director’s notes from Deidre McAllister- that it relays a society where we are bombarded with information.  There is a such a plethora of info at our fingertips, we almost get lost in the shuffle and can’t process it.  It is overwhelming, stifling, and at times, just plain confusing.  The final sequence is of all the actors using their phones and asking Alexa, Google, and other AI entities for the answers to completely random questions. But there is little to no change in the demeanor or big epiphany as a result.  These people are almost numb from the overload of statistics.  That is where love comes in, the only thing grounding us to each other, and to life, is a connection.  I think the Beatles put it best when they said, “love is all you need.”  Or Joe Cocker said we could “all get by with a little help from my friends.” And maybe that is all the information you need.

   SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?  Definitely put this one of your list of things to see.  It is unlike anything you’ve seen staged before.  The cast is solid and works fluently with one another and the massive amounts of characters and segments.  The projections are other-worldly and honestly on another level of expertise.  The themes and pieces will linger in my memory, even if they blow by quickly in performance.  Example, I keep chanting “Chicken Tikka Masala” and honestly don’t even know why.  This is worth going for because of all the above, but if you need another reason, I laughed out loud several times.  Genuine laughs.  And that is rarer and rarer these days. (I)

Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.  Running through February 2nd at Fells Point Corner Theater.

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