High Windows Low Doorways – Subtlenuance accents the spiritual. (Theatre review)

Matt Butcher by Zorica Purlija

High Windows Low Doorways

Subtlenuance at the Tap Gallery

March 19 – 30. You can buy your tickets here. 

I’ve heard Spirituality is the practical application of peace in your every day life, and its my best current definition. In the forward to High Windows Low Doorways Daniela Georgi and Paul Gilchrist claim the impulse for making a production focused on the conversation about spirituality, stemmed from a desire to converse past the all too familiar quagmire of belief. Insisting belief is part of spirituality limits the form and function of both, and separating them as concepts can assist in bringing a more contemporary discussion to the idea of spirituality.

Similar to the 2013 Political hearts of Children, Subtlenuance invited seven performers to tell a story from their life with only the instruction ‘spirituality’ and the request ‘experience not belief’ to guide them. They were paired with seven writers who took their story and pulled it into their own world, ingesting it, taking it away from the person and making it an artistic discourse, and then returning it to the original individual who wears the words in their actors role, and presented them to an audience. The process is an intriguing one, with words being used to transform the human experience when originally they were the tools of delivery. The question rises spiritual issues of its own: what happens to an actor when they perform their own experience in someone elses words? Who does a writer write for when they take an experience from a person who will then be required to perform that (now) monologue as an actor, not a perpetrator, participant or victim of the experience? What is happening when an actor performs – do they reveal more or less of themselves? The process itself opens up complex questions that, when seen in a spiritual context become a meta narrative on the theatrical process itself and bring a spiritual dimension that can act, contrary to how we think of spirituality, as clarifier rather than mystifier.

Peter McAllum by Zorica Purlija2

With an overarching insistence on the highest quality, Subtlenuance give the monologue format a fresh boost using techniques such as a variety of interactions with the cast as ensemble and interruptions as well as demarcations through lighting and sound. The lower Tap Gallery theatre stage is a stark affair, as if to imply a transference away from the material. The seven actors have a chair each, and throughout the performance they approach Tom Massey (whose role as stage manager is so interactive, with the existent theme he occurs almost like an omnipotent god handing out the stimuli of spiritual experience) to receive the objects that are given meaning through narrative. This is its own spiritual excercise, with feathers, leather satchels, robes, cameras, milk and other objects taking on significance when they trigger the story around them. As each actor moves forward to relate the retelling of their spiritual anecdote, the set is formed by the ensemble who at times become almost a greek chorus of feedback, welcoming the drained actor back into the fold, and pushing out the next, replete with their refashioned telling of their special moment. The audience watches each performance, knowing the actor is talking about themselves, and also knowing they play a role, as if that is what spirituality is, a role we play on behalf of ourselves to bring peace, cohesion and an attempt to create an integrated whole.

Matt Butcher is a subtle, charming presence, with an infused elegance that stretches out past his form. His connection with the audience is deep, his story one of personal history, the memories of loved ones past that sits with us so strongly, we feel their influence on our daily lives. Jonathan Ari Lander turns this very personal account into a gently caressing tale of a small wide-eyed boy adoring his larger-than-life beautiful grandmother. When Butcher comes to the stage with this story, he engages the whole into the  eye of the witness, so that the Tap gallery is transformed into a cathedral-like piano bar where booze and jazz are the instruments of worship and a vibrant woman the high priestess of life to a young boy.

Alice Keohavong by Zorica Purlija

Peter McAllum is a man in hospital, dealing with an accident always inevitable in those whose reach deeper into the  inexhaustible well of life that somehow never satiates a thirst for adventure. Noelle Janaczewska brings the surreal hospital state to McAllum’s bedside, time is an oppressor for the routines and yet strangely absent from the mind of the patient as memory is a haunted revisiting of hymns and motorbikes, each at home with the other in the spiraling cycle of the mind left to its own devices in a haunted dark. Peter McAllum’s impassioned cry against the forces that stole from him as they shaped him is made all the more gut wrenching by Janaczewska’s omnipresent hymns, providing peace and pain together. Alice Keohavong steps forward and at the same time is thrust back in time, her struggles with her culture – she has to be a good Laos girl – an overarching force, molding her spiritually even as she kicks against it. Katie Pollock has reworked a tale of relationship between Alice and her grandfather that connects her with a broader energy field, built on traditions and Budhism, her families religion of choice.

Gavin Roach is funny and flamboyant as a young man musing about the people who stood out on the edge and ran “from the back of the cave”. The folk who move out onto the skinny branches of the limb, the ones who take the risks on behalf of all humanity. Mark Langham writes Gavin’s story with a poetic wit that floats in and around the idea of ‘what if’ – what if we had never taken those first steps, what if we had never faced the first battle instead of run, what if the pioneers of every human achievement chose to conform instead- in a monologue is laced with funnies: We will make fire so that we can have light, heat and fondue at a later stage.

Naomi Livingstone by Zorica Purlija2

Kit Bennett relates the anti-spiritual lessons she learnt at Christian school and how when we see intolerance, often it can be the refusal of it that is the greatest spiritual experience. Alison Rooke has written her monologue with the gently grasping hand of love as the deepest of guiding principle.  Appreciation of difference becomes a spiritual quest, love a spiritual quest and in the end faith does not reveal itself in the ways one expects. Naomi Linvingston reveals a connection with the Mayans, 2012, and a wonderful relationship with feathers. Ellana Costa writes her story, that centers around the power of mysticism and the strength is leaving a unntennable situation behind. The power of sharing troubles and how we all need assistance to life the weight of the world off our shoulders every now and then. The final monologue is Helen Tonkin’s, as interpreted by Melita Rowston, a connection with nature, flowers and the pure beauty of key moments of growing up. The journey our parents lead us on is not only about the right direction in life, but rather our parents act as our most important and pervasive spiritual guides.

Open Windows, Low Doorways is performed to the high standard we have come to expect of Subtlenuance, but even more than this, it opens the conversation up about what it is to be spiritual in life, and what it means to have a spiritual life. Is it always the practical application of peace? Perhaps. But with our spiritual connection found in such diverse places as grandparents, parents, religion, motorbikes, evolution, feathers and the Mayans, through High Windows Low Doorways one comes to realise we barely scratch the surface of a lucid, mature conversation on the subject.

Peter McAllum by Zorica Purlija

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