Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2001
I read about the Thunder Bay Ensemble when they performed these two works last summer. I was intrigued, but East Otis is a long way away (a 90 minute drive door to door, in fact) and I did not make the trip down. But this year the dates of their performances coincided with a day I had to go to Lenox to review the Wharton One Acts at Shakespeare & Company in the afternoon, and I thought “Why not make a day of it and go on down to Thunder Bay in the evening?”
It turned out to be the best thought I have had in a long time. I had been promised a completely new and unique theatre experience if I made the pilgrimage to East Otis, and I was not disappointed. What Thunder Bay Ensemble does is really performance art, and that should be Art with a capital “A.” There is no relationship between their work and what is offered up as commercial theatre in Berkshire County.
When I got home that night, my husband asked me what I had seen, and I started to try to explain it. After a few minutes he asked me again, and I made another attempt. A half an hour later he looked at me and said, “I still really have no idea what it was you saw.” So I gave him a blow-by-blow description of what had happened in front of me while I sat in the Winnicut Performance Barn as part of the audience for Arctic Circle.
“This woman entered. She was wearing a large mask, on top of which was a hat with a whale on it that was carved in the style the Inuit people. She was pulling a sledge with a wooden fish or turtle on it that came apart like a puzzle. She began to pantomime cutting up the fish or turtle, eating parts of it and saving other parts for use later. No part of the catch was wasted. While she was doing that another woman, who was dressed as a man in a black suit and a bowler hat, emerged from a shipping crate and set up a great deal of pseudo-scientific equipment. She was intended to be a western scientist seeking to exploit the natural assets of the Arctic. For a long while the two actresses (Mary Andreyco as the Inuit and Sara Scala Ray as the scientist) performed their work simultaneously but unaware of each other?s presence. When they did make contact the initial encounter was violent, but then more sharing developed between them. They eventually had sex and conceived a child, who was half fish, like his/her Inuit mother. The scientist ended up taking the baby back into the shipping crate. There was no spoken dialogue between the actresses. A third performer, composer Ed Herbst, who was in full sight on stage at all times, provided an ongoing ‘soundtrack’ of noises, some of which he created with his own vocal chords, and some which he played on various objects and instruments.
This seemed to satisfy my husband, who then said that it sounded really cool and he wished he had gone. I have no idea why that explanation of what went on in the theatre was any more satisfactory than any other, but it was, and maybe it will be to you, too.
Thunder Bay uses the following quotation from The Village Voice in their publicity: “Thunder Bay ensemble fashions a nonverbal ecological opera of sound, shadow, and spirit that ranges from the chilling to the cartoonish to the quietly transcendent.”
This is as good an attempt to describe the effect of Thunder Bay’s work as any I could come up with. “[An] opera of sound, shadow, and spirit” is an apt and lyrical description of what I saw and heard and felt.
The second piece, Sea Change is more comical and cartoonish in nature, and it contains more spoken English words, although there is still no dialogue between the performers. In this case Andreyco, as a porter assisting a middle-aged woman to board a cruise ship with many suitcases, keeps up a chirpy running monologue about commercial cruising. Scala Ray, in an hilarious body suit and costume, haughtily ignores her and sets sail in her own style. When the cruise ship sinks and Scala Ray is left adrift in the ocean on her pile of luggage, Andreyco morphs into a seagull, the many scattered set pieces by Jun Maeda and Windrose Morris are assembled into a grand wooden boat, and Herbst provides amazing ocean sound effects that transform the Winnicut Barn into open sea.
When you arrive at Winnicut Farm, you are ushered in to a charming farmhouse where you are served delicious homemade refreshments and encouraged to sit in the living room and chat with your fellow audience members. The performance barn seats about 30 people, so at any given performance a diverse and convivial group assembles. People ready to trek to a barn in East Otis to see a nonverbal ecological opera are usually an interesting bunch, and I very much enjoyed the company of the crowd I met. At the appointed hour you are brought to the barn to see Arctic Circle, then returned to the farmhouse for a short intermission and more refreshments while sets and costumes are changed for Sea Change. After that piece is performed the cast and director come out for a question and answer session. It is all very relaxed and homey. I truly felt welcomed and included in this unique theatrical experience.
The sad thing is that Thunder Bay only performs a few days per year, and their location is remote enough to make a journey there off-putting to many people – especially those of us from north County. I wish we could persuade the Ensemble to tour a bit, perhaps come to MASS MoCA or the Clark for a few performances, although I realize that I great deal of the magic I witnessed depended on the shape and acoustics of the Winnicut Performance Barn itself. The bottom line is that this was the best $10 I have spent at the theatre in a long time. I am so glad I went, and I think you will be too. Take the whole family, it is affordable and will be fascinating to theatre lovers of all ages.
Arctic Circle and Sea Change will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 15, 2001, at the Winnicut Performance Barn (413-269-4201 or 8930), 621 Algerie Road, off of Rt. 23, in East Otis. Arctic Circle runs about 40 minutes and Sea Change runs about 30 minutes with a 20 minutes intermission between the pieces and a Q&A session after the performance for a total running time of about 90 minutes. The shows are suitable for all ages. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students. Delicious homemade refreshments are served.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001