Writers: Keith Hamilton Cobb and Teddy Jefferson
Director: Jessica Burr
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
In the past fourteen months, we have seen theatre artists engage a variety of innovative ways to tell stories remotely; we have seen recorded shows, live interactive plays, sound walks, and even phone plays. As the numbers of vaccinated folks in New York continues to rise, so does the promise of more live, in-person performances. New York City’s Open Culture program, which launched in March, allows for ticketed, socially distanced performances. Theatre company Blessed Unrest’s latest offering, Touch, is presented on the north border of Madison Square Park as part of the Open Culture program. Touch is a movement piece with text by the cast finalized by Keith Hamilton Cobb and Teddy Jefferson, Jessica Burr directs.
It’s difficult to provide a clear summary of Touch, as it is not driven by narrative as much as by engagement with the senses. The “set” consists of a stretch of sidewalk on 26th Street between 5th and Madison Avenues blocked off with traffic cones. The audience watches from 26th Street, which has been blocked to cars but not to bicycles. The actors (Michael Gene Jacobs, Tatyana Kot, Ariel Polanco, and Anna Wulfekule), who perform masked, use the existing structures on the sidewalk while music and recorded text plays from portable speakers that they move and carry, and cradle. They jump on benches, swing on a small tree, and recline on a circular bike rack. They almost, but not quite touch. Their movements are often just slightly out of synch, just enough that it feels like a choreographic choice rather than a mistake. The text focuses on the memory and promise of touch; there’s one story about breaking into a stable to pet the carriage horses, another about being a child and cuddling with a parent. Nothing captures the pandemic’s longing for contact better than when a voice cries from a speaker, “If I were a guitar, you could hold me by the neck and pluck my strings.”
Performances are exceptional; the actors rise to the challenge of communicating love and longing while masked, a challenge with half one’s face covered. Design elements are also excellent. Sohn Plenefisch’s costumes in autumnal tones do a fine job of marking the performers as connected but also separate. Composer and sound designer Adrian Bridges deserves particular praise for his work. The sound for this production has to do a lot of heavy lifting and Bridges had no permanent sound system to work with, only a set of portable speakers. Of course, the show was subject to the challenges of outdoor performances—a passing ambulance, cyclists taking the 26th Street bike lane, and low-flying pigeons run the risk of distracting the audience, but not for long. Audience members should be sure to wear comfortable shoes and folks who cannot stand comfortably for 45 minutes may wish bring a camp chair.
As much as it has been exciting to see theatre artists innovate with remote performances, there is no substitute for being part of a live audience; hearing real applause after a year of clapping emojis on a Zoom chat is intoxicating. Touch is an excellent step back into in-person performance, allowing us to test the masked, socially distanced waters as we prepare to advance into a post-pandemic world. It is a balm to the soul and should not be missed
Runs until 9 May 2021 | Photo Credit: Maria Baranova