DanceDramaFeaturedNew YorkPhysical TheatreReview

Magdalena—TheaterLab, New York

Writer: Gabri Christa

Director: Erwin Maas

Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell

TheatreLab started its Fall 2018 season, Homecoming, on September 12 with Gabri Christa’s solo performance piece Magdalena, directed by Erwin Maas with design and dramaturgy by Guy de Lancey. The performance uses dance, film, and storytelling to examine the life of Christa’s aging mother (the titular Magdalena) and her struggle with dementia.

Magdalena opens with a spotlight on a suitcase center stage, on which sits a doll. The doll is clearly from the mid-twentieth century. It has a porcelain head; it wears a handmade jumpsuit. It is Black. The doll and its race serve as Christa’s starting point. From a seat in the audience, she tells the story of how her mother, who grew up in the Netherlands during World War II, came to own this doll. The story builds from there, switching among Christa’s accounts of her family’s history, films made of old family photos, and dances that highlight the emotional tone of the narrative. The story takes us from Magdalena’s youth in Rotterdam to her courtship and marriage to Christa’s father (a student from the Dutch West Indies) to her time as a wife and mother in both the Netherlands and Curaçao to her current life as more of her memory slips away. Christa never tries to inhabit her mother’s body or speak in her voice; the verbal portions of the performance all draw on Christa’s own memories or on stories from family members. Her stories and films connect her life as a biracial child with her mother’s experiences in an interracial marriage while her dances show the changes in Magdalena’s physical and mental state as she ages. 

In her program notes, Gabri Christa emphasizes that this work was created for “intimate spaces” and at many points in the performance it feels very much like the audience members are guests in her living room. When she tells stories of her mother’s life, her tone is conversational; one gets the sense that she doesn’t have a set script so much as very specific details that she may verbalize differently with each performance. Transitions from storytelling to movement are seamless and Christa’s background as a dancer and choreographer are evident; she captures the vulnerability of a child surrounded by war, the confusion and frustration of a daughter watching her mother’s slide into dementia, and the struggle of an aging woman losing physical and mental capabilities.

The film portions of the show are best when Christa interacts with them; a scene in which she opens the suitcase on stage so it can function as a projection screen is especially effective—it’s as if the suitcase contains memories. Not all of the film functions this well, though; the first film sequence, which tells the story of a traumatic event during the war, is visually compelling but has an odd voice-over that detracts from the importance of the narrative. However this misstep with the voice-over was the only weak point of the evening. Gabri Christa has created a rich and moving tribute to her mother. She examines joy and tragedy in equal parts, emphasizing her own role in telling her mother’s stories as Magdalena is increasingly less capable of doing so. We’re lucky that she’s generous enough to invite the audience along.

Runs until 22 September 2018 | Image: 

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