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Review: A Messy, Rewarding Task of Living in ‘Remain in Light’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Review: A Messy, Rewarding Task of Living in ‘Remain in Light’Elena M. Perantoni and Whitney Thomas Eads in “Remain in Light.” Photos by Matt Slaybaugh.
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Available Light end their roller coaster of a 2018-2019 season with Remain in Light, written and directed by executive director Matt Slaybaugh. This kaleidoscopic, physical collage tackles some of the biggest questions facing us today: how do we find meaning? What makes us happy? How do we get out of bed and try to make a better life when our own brain tells us it’s no use?

Remain in Light stars Whitney Thomas Eads, Elena Perantoni, and Dakota Thorn, who also contributed to the script along with Stage Manager/Propmaster Jaylene Jennings. The arc of the show features the three performers throwing verses and punchlines to one another, almost Run-DMC-style, then breaking down to quieter moments with one of the three. The joy of Slaybaugh’s direction is the natural quality of these shifts, the joyous play slides in and out of the darkness in rhythms as recognizable as a heartbeat.

Elena M. Perantoni and Whitney Thomas Eads.

A sparse set with a bed at the center and one bench, and the performers dressed alike in tights and dark orange-brown shirts places extra emphasis on slight costume changes and a handful of props. Oversized suitcoats for a dazzling Talking Heads homage written by Slaybaugh accentuate the gleeful choreography. An old portable tape recorder presents a heartbreaking throughline where the characters “host a show” in solo segments. The image of this out-of-time anachronism and the metaphor of this device that would let you record everything but puts the burden of anyone hearing it on the one making the tape reverberates through the piece.

Remain in Light bursts with exquisite acting and dancing. One jaw-dropping sequence finds Perantoni describing a dream-party with all the great authors of all the great accumulated advice telling her she’s doing well and pointing her on her way downshifts hard into the realization it was only two days. Those words leave her sitting in a small circle of light with darkness all around.

Elena M. Perantoni (front) with Whitney Thomas Eads and Dakota Thorn

Another sequence late in the piece shows Eads trying to work through the patterns that helped just an hour ago and shuddering through the end of a gratitude practice with “The sun is out today. This is hard.” Those were striking examples of landmine-moments throughout the piece. It presents the finest dramatization of something difficult, slippery, and internal: the adrenaline when you hear something that not only rings true but feels actionable then the crash when implementing it isn’t as easy after that first blush of enthusiasm.

Remain in Light struck me as a natural progression from the early Available Light classic monologue The Absurdity of Writing Poetry, not least in the extensive list of influences and sources at the bottom of the program. Slaybaugh casts a wide net, drawing from novelists like David Foster Wallace, singers like Michael Stipe and Solange, scholars of forgiveness and meditation like Pema Chödrön and Thich Nhat Hanh, and longtime collaborators like Jennifer Schlueter.

Tackling this larger subject causes a more diffuse focus than the earlier monologue. While most of Remain in Light beautifully balances the belief we, as humans, can always get better (an exquisite monologue by Thorn hinges on the line “As long as you’re alive, there’s more right with you than wrong”) and the unvarnished difficulty of doing that work and breaking out of our old patterns presents, some sequences run too long in this 90-minute piece.

Sometimes the reinforcement feels more like platitudes. Particularly the ending, which tries to show that all the work that needs to be done on yourself doesn’t really flourish until interaction with other people, feels abrupt and tacked on; unsatisfying for this audience member who agrees with that message completely.

Those quibbles aside, if you’ve had any interest in self-reflection, self-improvement, even what makes us all human, Remain in Light is a dazzling primer. It’s a reminder to be here in the moment and here for one another. Who among us couldn’t use that?

Remain in Light runs through May 25 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, May 12, and 8 p.m. Thursday, May 23. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com.

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