Theatre Review: With John Cage 101, Available Light Theatre takes a risk and creates something different
“…silence…silence…silence…” Most people, if they know John Cage, know him as the man who created 4’33”, a piece of three parts that lasts four minutes and thirty-three seconds where the musicians do nothing. The audience hears the silence and the sounds within. Last night, Available Light Theater opened its long-awaited and sound-filled biography play about the avant-garde composer, John Cage 101.
The initial concept began two years ago and the creation process lasted the past six months. John Cage 101 serves as a broad history lesson from present day pupils at AVLT as well as an ode to their revered teacher, John Cage. Four talented ensemble members navigate the ebbs and flows of Cage’s life as they deconstruct a portion of his work and dive to the center of what made him and what that meant for the world.
Acacia Duncan, Meghan Durham Wall, Drew Eberly, and Ian Short comprise the dedicated cast in which all portray a part of the titular character. Also, they all take turns depicting other influential people in Cage’s life as well as the members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Using a suit coat and cigarettes to symbolize the character shift from one actor playing Cage to another, the cast creates an abstract yet idealized balance of the man. Duncan plays a thoughtful and purposeful vulnerability while Short portrayed a more straight-forward and honest Cage; Eberly added in bits of awe and eccentricity. Meghan Durham Wall characterizes Cage for a brief moment and mostly plays his counterpart Merce Cunningham in an enigmatic manner.
The four, with director Matt Slaybaugh, work together to fill moments with calculated movement, music, and sound that tend to flow with some fluidity. Slaybaugh’s lyrical staging not only complements the many dancer characters but emphasizes the thought that Cage’s compositions, though non-traditional, are in fact music. Dave Wallingford’s sound design illustrates an impressive amount of work, especially due to his entrusting the actors to play many of the cues. Costumes, set, and lighting all provide a sort of white canvas to see the subtle intricacies of the story.
Approximately 15% of the show fluxes nightly depending on audience participation, interruptions, games on stage, music choices, and other seen or unseen activities. This creates a fun, live atmosphere that one only experiences through theater. Additionally, various actor-given props and instruments to the audience provide an aid in the history lesson.
The history lesson does come through a bit; at its core, John Cage 101 exemplifies a biographic play, which is difficult to produce in an interesting way. AVLT attempts to integrate elements from other theatrical forms making an abstract performance art-dance theater of the absurd, which creates a very artsy, highly intellectual, and almost inaccessible performance. Furthermore, the unique nature of the show suffers from a lack of character development, making it challenging to get into the story and care about the characters, regardless of the history lesson. Overall, I worry it may be a bit too high-brow for someone who seemed to steer so far from that very word.
Despite my preceding remarks, I commend AVLT for taking a risk and creating something different. They took a chance and for that I recommend all to see the show because, though it may not entirely fit my tastes, John Cage 101 forces me to analyze itself and question, as Cage noted, “Why do I think it’s not beautiful?”
John Cage 101 runs until April 6, at Studio Two in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street. Thurs.-Sat. at 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. Talk backs occur after every Thursday and Friday performance. Pay what you want. More information can be found online at www.avltheatre.com.