Last weekend proved a major breakthrough in the theater world. While site-specific performances have become more prevalent, no company, as far as Louisville’s Specific Gravity Ensemble can tell, has staged plays in elevators. Friday, the company premiered “Elevator Plays: Ascent-Descent/Assent-Dissent,” setting tongues wagging around town. And if you don’t have tickets for this week’s shows by now, you could be out of luck.
On opening night, the audience, naturally, fell into four queues in the Starks Building lobby for what the company is calling “a festival of 24 new plays for very small spaces.” In each of the four corresponding elevators, one 90-second play was staged going up to the 15th floor, and another going down. The set-up allowed audience members to select the order in which they watched the theatrical couplets.
As soon as my friend and I entered the first car, we knew modern theater had crossed the Rubicon. All barriers between audience and actors were removed, and we were watching a play with only three other people. As in real life, we weren’t sure at first whether to look directly at the actors, gaze vacantly ahead or stare at our shoes. Soon, we began to relax. We made eye contact with the other passengers and revealed our own emotional reactions to the pieces, as opposed to “real-life” elevator situations when we don’t dare do such things. Nonetheless, that tendency was sometimes apparent when audience members waited until they poured out at the ground floor to let out bursts of laughter.
We all were like kids at an amusement park, sometimes riding the same elevator twice after a particularly good performance. Strangers discussed the plays with each other while waiting for the next elevator and exchanged knowing glances while riding. No more was the audience a faceless bunch sitting in the dark. Hallelujah!
Some plays were better than others, but the selection of these particular pieces (solicited from writers throughout the country) was pure genius when viewed as a whole. They were like a mosaic, where a remarkable setting can make even an ugly shard beautiful.
Standout performances included Anna Saltsgaver in Ray Robinson’s “Labor Pains,” as a “pregnant” woman. Christopher Shiner shined in every piece, especially in his “When’s the Elevator Play?” — an absurdist drama in the style of Edward Albee.
Harmon’s “Doppler Effect” demanded a return visit. In it, two actors face each other simultaneously reading speeches with polar opposite perspectives: One by our president, the other by the Dalai Lama.
Gina Cisto marvelously underplayed a long-suffering woman trying to placate her loutish spouse in Lucas Adams’ “Effects of the Suburb.” Cisto was the ultimate earth mother in “Finishing the Beginning,” as she helped God create the world. Jennifer Poliskie heated things up in “Merger” and “Going Up,” two performances about elevator sexual encounters.
Corey Long hit home runs in every performance, particularly in “Grandfather Clause,” which could be a spoof of the Bingham dynasty. Of interest to LEO readers, the hilarious “L.E.E.R.” lampoons the newspaper’s founder.
The logistics of arranging these events would be enough to send any stage manager into a tizzy. Here, the stage direction was in front of the audience. Stage manager Randy Pease and crew made their work a part of the show, giving a thumbs up when it was time to load a car.
By the end of the third act, we were wiped out from standing and queasy from riding up and down for 2-1/2 hours. Still, I can’t wait to do it again.
But what do elevators have to do with specific gravity, which is a comparison of one substance’s density to that of water? (Why anyone wants to know the specific gravity of something is a mystery to me.)
I asked artistic director Rand Harmon why the company chose this moniker. “The name refers more to the audience than it does the company itself,” he said. “It’s really about the give-and-take at the intersection where ensemble and audience members come together.”
Huh? Harmon elaborated, “As we were discussing our company’s artistic mission, one member described the desired outcome of our productions as ‘each audience member walking away with their own specific gravity.’” He continued, “Naturally, every individual will have a different reaction to our work,
have their own unique specific gravity after coming into contact with us. That moment — when specific gravity was used to describe the effect of our artistic mission — we knew it was to be our name. It just stuck.”
After the company’s weighty and moving debut, I predict it will stick around for years to come.
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