I stood at the bar in a building in North Philly, the smell of warm incense filled my nose and I was instantly transported to my childhood, where every Sunday I was donning a white robe to “play” the role of altar boy in my local church. As time has gone on my ties to Christianity have loosened, but my memories of church have stayed strong. I began to think about everything I wanted from a fringe show… I can (and do) take in “normal” theatre year round at The Walnut, Arden, Wilma or any range of smaller theaters in this two mile peninsula I call home. When the two week stretch of Fringe rolls around I look for something different. I want to feel grossed out, turned on, distressed, fascinated etc. I want to be taken to the edges of my comfort level; I’m reminded of my favorite sub-genre of performance.
Theatre of Cruelty was originated by Antonin Artaud can be seen as break with traditional Western theatre, and a means by which artists assault the senses of the audience, and allow them to feel the unexpressed emotions of the subconscious. I’ve experienced this genre done correctly twice before, and they’ve both been shows put together by Gunnar Montana. His latest piece, Purgatory, is no exception. Rarely do performances take advantage of more than two senses: the da-actors (dancer – actor combination) of Purgatory managed to force the audience to literally taste, see, smell, hear and feel their performance.
The show started the second I left the downstairs bar. I, along with the rest of the audience, was taken on a journey up stairs and through hallways that have been adorned with candles, church paraphernalia and the strong smell of incense until we were led into the main performance space. It was breathtaking. Four, 12 foot crosses adorned with crucified golden skeletons hung symmetrically around the room. Behind them were eight, large stained glass pieces that when finally revealed (and lit) were gorgeous. The most impressive room dressing hundreds of candles mounted in a grid formation from floor to ceiling that provided an almost starry backdrop to the entire room.
Without warning the show begins, indicated only by a change of music. 90 seconds into the first performance piece the friend I brought with me leans over, “I’m so into this right now.” I felt the same way. The show set a quick pace and it became clear the evening was going to be broken down into 12 vignettes and the seven dancers moved in perfect sync leaving no downtime between each act. There are so many surprises that play with everything you think you know, and twists it around. Writing a review for this show is difficult because half of my love for the show came from its ability to continually throw things at me that I would never expect, and I’m begging, pleading and encouraging you to go be as taken aback as I was.
Highlights? The whole damn show. But my strongest memories come from three specific numbers. While vignette styled, there are a few “characters” that make multiple appearances. Early in the show a female actress (Stephanie Lyneice) is hung from a crane hook dangling from the ceiling and stripped naked. Her breasts are then bound and she slides into an amazingly detailed pope mask and then is robed in traditional papal attire. She/ he exits the performance space and re-appears at what I felt to be the climax of the show. In a number called “Confession,” the music builds in both tempo and volume, forcing the audiences’ heartbeat to elevate. The pope figure re-enters and walks towards his desk and slides a vinyl out from hiding, at the music’s peak, he switches the record out with his newly revealed vinyl and, well, if you have ever wondered what the pope does when he’s alone in his room… this show answers that question. Leader of the Christian faith, but can’t be himself – purgatory if you ask me. Judging by the skill level of this performance, I can only assume the man under the mask was the ever talented, Dylan Kepp.
Another notable number was “The Last Supper” performed with a solo by Jennifer Jones. I have never been so turned on by a woman before. Yearning for the attention from her absent minded husband (been there), she strips a 20 foot table of its plates/ glass ware and struts on this red finished 20 foot table converted runway in a skin tight black lace number. Her flexibility, precision, and attitude was breathtaking as she dominated the space. She has a gorgeous house but no love – purgatory if you ask me.
It wouldn’t be a Gunnar production (and I would have been disappointed) if there wasn’t a bit of male skin, and Purgatory is no exception to this “rule.” Adrian Plascencia and Gunnar Montana take the dance space. Behind each of them are basins of holy water. They’re dressed as collared priests. They give each other “the look.” It become clear they’re lovers that can’t love and beg God to “Take Me to Church.” Their black dress shirts become soaked as they continually throw themselves and each other into holy water. You can quickly feel the raw love between them as their shirts come off and you can hear their skin smack and slide against each other as they quickly discover no amount of prayer can keep them apart. Love you have, but can't want – purgatory if you ask me.
The final scene is one that I’m forbidden to talk about by Gunnar because its shock value is so insane, talking about it ahead of time would kill it. The number really hits the nail on the head when it comes to Purgatory (as a place) and the dance with death we all have to deal with at moments in our life.
The theme of Purgatory is clear in every number which allowed for my friend and I to dissect over a plate of wings at Moriarty’s (side note, I had a salad… it’s still summer.) She had her opinions on what Purgatory is, and I had mine. That’s what Fringe is about to me; interpretation, conversation, and new experiences.
You’d be an idiot to miss Purgatory. It runs through 9/19, more info here.