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Documenting Revolution

The Ko Festival offers summer theater alternatives (July 16-August 8, 2004)

The Ko Festival of Performance is summer theater with a difference—a big difference. No Agatha Christie or Neil Simon here—or Williams or Miller or Shakespeare, for that matter. Ko Theater Works, based in Amherst, Mass., focuses on new pieces of interdisciplinary theater and performance art. Its summer festival features quirky, often experimental works that push at stylistic boundaries.

The company takes its name from the 49th hexagram of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese "book of changes." Ko means "revolution," the casting off of the old, specifically, by shedding the skin—in this case, shaking off old aesthetic structures to find new, more supple forms underneath.

This summer's four productions share a connecting theme, grouped under the unfortunate heading "The Document, the Documenter and the Documented." Unfortunate because that sounds like the title of some dry academic conference, while this year's shows are lively, engaging, and surprisingly accessible.

All four pieces do take their cue from documentary texts of one sort or another, from ancient manuscripts to e-mail. They also link the old and new, interleaving history and legend with memory and imagination.

The season opener was Lesley Farlow's two-part piece "Out of the Garden." In part one, "Exile," she movingly juxtaposed two murderous moms: Medea, the Greek princess who slit her children's throats because her husband, Jason, wanted to marry someone else; and Susan Smith of South Carolina, who in 1994 strapped her two young sons into their car seats and rolled her Mazda into a lake, because her boyfriend didn't want kids around.

Farlow fused evocative body images with music and dialogue, moving around a stage strewn with toys and stuffed animals. The crucial document here was a chillingly naive, almost childlike appeal that Susan Smith posted on the Web, seeking pen pals: "I enjoy reading, writing and working puzzles. I love rainbows, Mickey Mouse, waterfalls, beaches, the mountains. I consider myself to be caring, sensitive and kindhearted. I am currently serving a life sentence on the charge of murder."

In the season's second production, "The Alexandria Carry-On," another solo performer, Theo Bleckmann, also effectively combined movement and text. He portrayed a slave employed in the great library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt, antiquity's most comprehensive storehouse of written knowledge. Hungry for learning, the slave teaches himself to read, an act that becomes his salvation and his downfall. It expands his spirit but perpetuates his servitude, since as an educated slave he is much too valuable to ever be freed.

Bleckmann is a dancer, composer, vocalist and instrumentalist, and he brought all those gifts to this multimedia music-theater piece. The songs were set to fragments of ancient texts that would have been found in the Alexandrian library—Euripides, Sappho, Heraclitus, vase inscriptions, prayers encrypted on papyrus rolls. Bleckmann accompanied himself on an electronic lyre tuned to a ten-note scale—the ancient glimpsed through a modern prism.

Writer-director Laurie McCants' purpose here was to explore the power of knowledge and the persistent appeal of the word. She's also interested in the contemporary irony of the great library's demise. According to a program note, it probably didn't burn down, as legend has it, but simply disintegrated over time from neglect and lack of funding.

"Sounding to A" deals with much more recent history. It is a Holocaust memoir in search of memories. Eva Ungar Grudin was born in the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, where her parents had fled as Nazi troops advanced into Austria. When Eva was ten, the family moved to Cleveland, arriving during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when schoolchildren were instructed to "duck and cover" under their desks to protect themselves in case of a nuclear attack.

"Sounding to A" was developed with Ko's artistic director, Sabrina Hamilton. It's the product of research Grudin undertook to uncover the facts of her family's wartime experience. Like many Holocaust survivors, her parents refused to speak about the war, seeking to protect their children from horrific truths. Grudin's autobiographical narrative is illustrated with projections of family photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia.

At one point she recreates the writing of a speech she gave to her fifth-grade class the day after becoming a naturalized citizen. It's a child's exercise in shading the truth in order to deliver what the teacher expects: "Ten years ago I was born in Shanghai, China, where my parents had lived for many years running away from Hitler." She pauses, erases, and continues: "... where my parents had lived for many years working as missionaries. Thank goodness I am no longer there, for I would be living under the Communists instead of in a free country where I can have my own ideas without having my brain washed."

Grudin is joined onstage by the Austrian violist Yossi Gutmann, who provides apt musical counterpoints. A leitmotif is the George M. Cohan tune "It's a Grand Old Flag." Gutmann captures young Eva's cultural ambivalence with a distinctly European, minor-key rendition of that patriotic chestnut.

This year's Ko Festival concludes with another one-person show. "Poet in New York," performed by Dito van Reigersberg of Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre, it is a fantasia on Federico Garcia Lorca's year of torment and epiphany in the American metropolis.

This festival is not for the passive summer-theatergoer. The shows demand attention and engagement—in fact, every performance this summer is followed by a discussion with the show's creative team. The themes are pertinent and complex, the performances adventurous and engaging, and the results are enriching.

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