SITI and Ann Hamilton Fill Theater's Blank Page at UCLA's Royce Hall

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater
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It was not until I finally saw a traditionally written play subsequent to walking through The Theater is a Blank Page at Royce Hall that I finally connected with the method and meaning behind this rather ponderous performance piece. Because I want my theater experience to stand up as an artistic encounter in its own right, I was not prepared for what I was about to see.

Rather than an optimum viewing experience such as one might expect from a performance, artist Ann Hamilton (responsible for the art part of the performance), with Ann Bogart & SITI (responsible for the performance part), ask their audiences to take the journey with the memories and sensory perceptions exhibited in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, itself an experimental novel written in 1927. In addition to Hamilton and Bogart, some 22 artists have collaborated to bring the performance into being.

To understand the piece, one must take a refresher course in Woolf’s métier, moving from the frame (here demonstrated by actors prepping the stage, shown through Royce Hall’s cavernous proscenium arch) to the passage of time as audience members move from upper reaches of the balcony down to the stage itself. As they depart, Rena Chelouche Fogel begins a reading of Woolf’s novel that waterfalls on the ear. Her reading continues through the journey out the doors, down the corridor, then backstage, finally to emerge onstage.

By the time all assemble, chairs have been placed in a square, and Woolf’s words continue monotonously beneath one’s consciousness. Strands of the novel printed on cloth strips make discontinuous contact with the reading as it passes like a ticker tape from one person to another. Intermittently, a choral reading directed by second reader, Bahni Turpin, chimes in, over, and around Fogel’s reading. For the last section, audiences connects Woolf’s depiction of a family trip to the lighthouse through the moving images shown with an overhead video.

Constant movement, no opportunity to ruminate, and the wash of words prevent us from the very emotions that Woolf’s introspective work often conveys. Instead of catching a thread that will pull us through a maze of impressions, we are cast adrift, as if our boat floats rudderless, to the beckoning lighthouse. The final image, though, is the most compelling and productive: the darkened audience blooms into the light, and we see a muslin-covered sea rising to the top of the 1,000 seat theater, At last we see ourselves as having attained our destination, with the undulating sea all around.

UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance presents The Theatre is a Blank Page at Royce Hall on the UCLA Campus in Westwood until May 12, 2018. For information on UCLA’s CAP UCLA programs phone (310) 825-2101 or www.cap.ucla.edu.