Ever-inventive artist Michael Sommers of Open Eye Figure Theatre has taken on the almost imponderable at the heart of human existence – light and darkness, and the experience of lament. His new theatrical piece, “Refreshments,” is bold and evocative, an experience not soon or willingly forgotten. Inspired by recent travels to Indonesia, Sommers has created a multi-dimensional, multi-layered spectacle of paradoxically epic proportions thematically, while diminutive in execution – we’re talking puppets here, among other media, and audiences limited to 20.
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How would you render the cosmic battle between Dark and Light, and the lamentation of the soul, a daunting task, and where would you end up? Who wins, and how is lament transformed? Good questions, ones we’ve all pondered in one way or another. And we’re not alone, of course – throngs of voices from the past stand at our door ready with answers. Yet every generation needs to wrestle with this age-old dialectic, as well as every individual, for life brings its inevitable sadness as well as joy, tragedy as well as victory, and everything in between.
Sommers embraces this epic task, and makes it clear where he’s headed – the title tells us – “Refreshments.” How can this be, one wonders, lamentation and refreshment? Curiosity aroused, I arrived at the theater just before 9 pm – darkness is required, we were told – and followed instructions: “go down the alley to the wooden fence, and ring the bell on the gate.” Mystery and adventure from the start. The gate opens to a beautifully-landscaped patio, with servers offering skewered meat and slices of grilled corn on the cob to enjoy with your wine. Clearly refreshment has begun on this multi-sensory journey.
Soon, Sommers appears with a banner, a mind map of his take on this epic subject, and the trajectory for the evening, which he quickly explains. “At some point we have all sung our own sad song,” he suggests, and we see the banner’s “open eye” weeping. “And truth be told, once and awhile a good cry does a soul good.” Sommers continues, “This is the address,” and we know we have arrived at a place of significance. His taxonomy shows the movement from “re-gret” and “re-morse” to “re-new,” “remember.” No objection here. In this brief dance through the depths of his thinking, one senses that Sommers has worked something out, for himself at least, and wants to share it. Though I find myself wanting more time to capture his answers, harvest every nuance, I move on with the crowd and trust the evening will satisfy.
What ensues is a pilgrimage of sorts, as we are led to 3 different areas of the theater, ending on the stage, for 3 pieces, “The Hole of Lament,” “A Crucible,” and “A Petition for Active Intervention.” Sommers uses puppets and soundscape, shadow puppetry (Indonesian style) with narrative, and opaque projections and sound. The audience is offered something savory to eat, spiced nuts, and after the final act, something sweet, fruit trifle, symbolic, one surmises, of the transmutation of Dark and Light on this pilgrimage.
It is impossible to capture the fullness of Sommers’ voice throughout these fast-paced narratives. Artists have the right, perhaps mandate, to be evocative, cryptic. Sommers is no exception. What is clear, though, is that “Refreshments” heralds lament as vital to the journey with Light and Dark, essential to finding our way toward renewed hope and trust. (“Many of the oldest and most lasting poems in human history have been laments,” notes Sommers on the website.) And if we take nothing further from the evening than this, it is enough – of immeasurable value, I suggest, in this eternally-upbeat culture of ours.
Who speaks of lament these days, besides Hebrew scholars, and maybe the occasional poet? When’s the last time it came up in conversation? And why should it, the cheery soul asks – life is good, officially at least, never mind the evidence to the contrary for some. It’s the American way, optimism. We have no Wailing Wall, no Dia de los Muertos and picnicking on the graves of loved ones.
“That man is truly good who knows his own dark places.” Beowulf
Our struggle, our grief is often private, or buried, often deemed inappropriate. “Everything happens for a reason,” people say. What reason, I want to know – to make us better people? Tell that to the abused child. “You create your own reality.” Please! People suffer, often through no fault of their own. I’ve seen it, in my work with victims and offenders, and as a pastor. And I’ve had my own dark nights of the soul. We long to hear something other than “get over it,” “isn’t it time to move on,” “stop being a victim.” Something like understanding, acknowledging realities, …compassion.
Thank you, Michael Sommers, for putting it out there, the darkness, the reality and necessity of lamentation, and the truth that there is also light, and that transformation is possible. The exact alchemy of this metamorphosis remains a bit shrouded in this Open Eye production but there are hints. For instance, it may be the tears of our sorrow and despair that fill the hole of lament and move us to another place. And it’s a place you may “re-member,” for you’ve been here before (note elephant on banner). Truth about the human condition, what a gift – at one point, Sommers offers his own confession/lament, “I am scruffy, I am scruffy.” The “open eye” in action. And, is there something in this piece, perhaps, about touch, connection?
The production ends with this song, “Do you love me?” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s the question we all ask the universe, God, Spirit, higher power, lifeforce, our parents, partners, our children, our selves. And we want to know the answer is yes. So, “yes,” I say – for my part, yes to you all, as much as I can, at least intermittently if not unconditionally, I love you. And as for God and the universe, we hope the answer is “yes.” And somedays we know, we believe.
A Vow of Thanks, as the printed program suggests, is a fruitful ending for this pilgrimage. We began our Open Eye adventure at twilight, entered the darkness, and left, perhaps, awaiting the dawn, more ready, more refreshed, the dawn that enfolds both Dark and Light.
“I see…the priceless day and the dark sacred night, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” Louis Armstrong
“Refreshments” is complex, innovative, dense and deep, audacious. Something very real here. The only thing missing for me was an after-show conversation, maybe a panel: rabbi/minister/theologian, psychologist, hospice nurse, new age spiritual teacher, “can-do” motivational speaker, someone with cancer or mental illness…. Imagine the dialogue!
“Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.” May Sarton
The multi-talented Sommers was a 2009 recipient of the Bush Enduring Vision Award.