How Do You Remember the House You Grew Up In?
By JONATHAN MANDELL
Wednesday, August 28, 2019  •  
Wed Aug 28, 2019  •  
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"We're interested in emotions. We're going to give you feelings, and you are going to make your own associations."

Theater Mitu's latest experimental piece deconstructs the concept of home, with an assist from technology and Chekhov

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Rubén Polendo can clearly explain how he and his Theater Mitu colleagues came up with the elaborate devised theatre piece House (or how to lose an orchard in 90 minutes or less). It's much more difficult for him to explain what exactly it is.

"When people ask me to describe it, I kind of rub my chin and think, then say, 'Well come and see it,'" Theater Mitu's founding artistic director says with a laugh.

House was inspired by what Polendo calls "a palpable sense of instability at the moment" and the questions that provoked among the company members, their friends and families. When did they last feel stable, and why? "So many of the conversations wound up being about houses we grew up in and apartments where we lived," Polendo says. In retrospect, it was fitting that last year, the 22-year-old experimental theatre company moved into its first permanent home, a former glass recycling facility at 580 Sackett Street in Gowanus rechristened MITU580.

The recollections these conversations sparked in Polendo were powerful. "When I say 'my house,' I think of the house where I grew up in Mexico, even though I left there when I was 14," he says. "It was very stable -- and then suddenly it became incredibly unstable," noting that his hometown, Ciudad Juárez, quickly became known as the murder capital of the world. (His experience of that abrupt descent into violence led to Theater Mitu's Juárez: A Documentary Mythology.) "What kept hope going was the memory of the stability that the house represented," he explains. "In Spanish, we use the word for house, casa, interchangeably with the word for home."

Polendo landed on Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard to help guide the company's creation of House, which made sense for several reasons. The 1904 play is filled with both a sense of place and a sense of loss, and the company has long incorporated Chekhov into its work. One of Theater Mitu's earliest projects, But Above All Without a Plan, was based on the same play as well as letters the dramatist wrote "when he felt very lost as to what his role was as an artist," Polendo says.

Ada Westfall and Scott Spahr in
Ada Westfall and Scott Spahr in 'House'

In keeping with Theater Mitu's usual collaborative process, this past spring the company's dozen principal members met to riff on The Cherry Orchard and the meaning of "house" during what they call a lab -- essentially a series of brainstorming sessions that lasted eight hours a day for two weeks, and included Internet deep dives and outside interviews.

The result is a 70-minute collage of disparate images, monologues, songs and sounds around the theme. Audiences are required to wear headphones, through which they hear the soundscape, while they watch the nine performers sing, dance, act, narrate and even play a saw on a stage that looks like a house under construction. There are 14 video monitors constantly going. Sometimes they show the performers live, but often they screen archival footage, including a 1950s news segment about a housing development offering the new ideal American dream home, a 1952 Disney cartoon short of a house and an old commercial for Cherry Coke. The script includes snippets of The Cherry Orchard as well as excerpts from interviews the company conducted, along with nods to House, Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 Japanese cult horror film. The performance is divided into four segments -- Act I: The Arrival; Act II: The Death of a Child; Part III: Foreclosure; and Part IV: Death of a House -- which Polendo says correspond to the four acts of The Cherry Orchard. However, the members of the company are quick to admit their House offers no discernible narrative.

"We have a visual arts aesthetics," says Denis Butkus, a Juilliard-trained actor who joined the company in 2011. "House is a series of installations, not necessarily privileging story over anything else. We're interested in emotions. We're going to give you feelings, and you are going to make your own associations."

Polendo sees the tech-assisted sensory bombardment in Theater Mitu's pieces as attempting to reproduce normal thought processes. "The voices in your head are filled with memories and pop media and anything else that is rolling around in there," he says.

As challenging as House might be as a whole, Polendo hopes audience members will find resonance in individual moments, maybe the story that Kayla Asbell shares based on an interview with a woman who visited the house she grew up in, now abandoned. Or Justin Nestor's expression of triumph in a monologue that begins "I bought it" (which turns out to be borrowed from Chekhov). Or one of the six songs composed and sung by Ada Westfall ("Thank God you've come home…"). As Polendo puts it, "We are really committed to the work sparking a dialogue, instead of simply giving something to an audience."

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Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Kayla Asbell and Isabella Uzcátegui in House (or how to lose an orchard in 90 minutes or less). Photo by Theater Mitu.

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