The idea of a play with no people on stage isn’t new. That is, after all, what the phantasmagoria stage shows of the 18th and 19th centuries were all about, where projections of light with sound conjured a theatrical spectacle of phantoms. In Dutch artist Gabriel Lester’s Super Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1), presented at Abrons Arts Center as part of Performa 13, this experiment was resurrected in a piece of 20 minutes where nothing moved on the angular stage except lights and an occasional door opening and closing.
I probably should have read the plot summary before the show began, but I tend to always approach any theater with a blank slate, so my only information going in was that the atmosphere and plot would all be derived from lights and sound. So when watching the cool hues of blue form softly over the stage or seeing the less abstract spotlights representing steps climbing into an apartment, or even when the suddenly familiar noises of the subway pounded from the small speaker system, I was both looking for a narrative and taking it all as a suggestion of scenes.
According to the program, the plot actually involves several characters, including some intrigue with a scientist and his creation, as well as his fiancée Elizabeth, all culminating with two fatal accidents that leave their child an orphan left to search the world for a home. What I got, though, was more the kind of loose narrative that you have from hearing the noise of your neighbors. Through the thin floor of my Brooklyn apartment I’ve heard my downstairs neighbor’s serious relationship fall apart, her discovery that her new boyfriend was cheating on her, her wild solo party nights, all this an ongoing, very fragmented story that’s just being transmitted through the noisiest moments of sound. Lester’s Super Sargasso Sea, likewise, had these moments of clarity in the noise, with the violence of one of the accidents and the death in the hospital bed afterward actually being surprisingly intense, but then again the sustained flatlining of a heart monitor will do that to you.
The light side of the play — with its projections and changing hues — did have some beautiful moments, and some in the crowd, despite the artist’s request to keep off your phones, couldn’t resist snapping a shot or two. The stage seemed inspired by the eerie expressionist shapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with a bed suspended from wire on a small platform in the apartment area, while above another simple landscape of corners suggested a street. The only stage tech at work aside from that was a smoke machine that churned from a little room at the end, which while watching I thought to be something of the dead person’s soul escaping to the next plane, but perhaps was meant to be the creature or child looking for a new home.
Despite the fact I mostly missed the narrative, it was an interesting piece to hold in the very traditional red-curtained Henry Street Settlement theater at Abrons Arts Center, and the friend I went with, who happens to work with music and sound design, noted it was pretty impressive what Lester pulled off with an uncomplicated speaker set up and basically a bunch of colored lights. I unfortunately haven’t experienced any of Lester’s other works, but at least in photographs his installations like “Melancholia in Arcadia” with its frozen lace curtains that permanently billow from windows and colored light spaces look much more compelling. I can’t help but feel that it’s just hard to replace the human body on stage with only sound and abstract lights and achieve the same emotional gravity.
Gabriel Lester’s Super Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1) took place at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) November 21 to 24 as part of Performa 13.