Swept up in the moment

Greg Corradini

Inspiration is fast and loose.

One second you are a rational and responsible individual, and the next you’re frantically composing a piece of poetic doggerel.

Artists of all kinds (visual, poetic, musical) are those we like to think of as constantly in the thrall of inspiration. Therefore, it only seems appropriate that a group of artists openly base their work on things that inspired them in the first place.

“Sacred Space,” 15 HEAD’s new production, takes its creative impetus from a number of famous works by Salvador Dali, Edward Hopper and Rene Margritte, among others. The company concentrates its production on the visual and aural powers of theater, thus creating a captivating piece of dramatic art that discards the bondages of text.

The play opens with a live chorus performing the haunting arrangement “Agnus Dei.” As the audience listens in complete darkness, Dali’s “The Railway Station at Perpignan” appears at stage left. The painting is framed around an aureole of light escaping from a doorframe. Inside the doorframe is what appears to be a human falling backwards into the light.

Then, a woman descends from the crowd and begins to tell the audience that among things that change, there is a thread to follow. For viewers, this introduction warns that the following production, much like life itself, is unexplainable and possibly hard to find meaning in. However, be alert, watch and listen carefully, and you might be able to spot that tenuous thread.

One would think that scenes incorporating 16 dancing ensemble members, nine of them performing a cappella parts while others narrate simultaneously, might make any thread hard to follow. However, the 23-strong artistic team of designers, performers and directors in this production execute each scene with dramatic precision.

Indeed, an audience in need of a quick headache should try to calculate how long technical rehearsals took to get all aspects of the production coordinated.

One scene uses Lyonel Feininger’s painting “Carnival at Arcueil” to establish a rowdy scene of fun. The painting itself depicts villagers awash in celebration and merriment, while using bold and daring color. The theater company translates this by having the whole cast appear on stage as a kazoo-blowing marching band. Then, a man in a pink tutu comes waltzing in and proceeds to throw halibut through a fellow performer’s ringed headgear. Mind you, the whole time the chorus is doing various a cappella pieces like “Banana Love.”

Does the context of the scene really need to be established? Whether it is a carnival, bachelor party or insane asylum, the audience gets that this is a scene of Dionysian revelry.

That is not to say that 15 HEAD does not use its nontraditional format to try and establish a more traditional storied context.

Some of the scenes in “Sacred Space” seem to be narrative vignettes, probing what events or contexts the paintings themselves were created in. Insight into the creative backdrop of the portraits can have a chilling effect because the audience is made to take a certain stance on a portrait’s theme.

John Singer Sargent’s painting “A Street in Venice” depicts a

man and a woman in what could be conversation outside a doorway in a street. The theme 15 HEAD proposes to extract from this painting in their catalog of themes is “devotion.”

A scene then begins to unfold of a man and woman ogling each other while dressing in front of a mirror. Could this be a scene from marriage, an affair or one-night tryst?

It could be any of these and more. That is what makes 15 HEAD’s interpretations so revealing and disturbing at the same time. They fondle the possibilities and events that lie behind a single depicted act. Devotion might have been the last thing you would have thought of when taking in Sargent’s dark alleyway and the stripped facet of buildings. But it sure works well the way 15 HEAD conceived it.

“Sacred Space” reminds audiences that narrative threads are not necessary to produce evocative and moving pieces of theater. But one ingredient might be necessary: inspiration.