On The Culture Front: Life And Times, The Encounter, Christine And More

What would it be like if we could actually experience what our partners are feeling? That is the question that drives the inventively conceived if thinly realized concept play "Empathitrax" by Ana Nogueira. The first fifteen-minutes fly by propelled by giddy anticipation, but like many pharmaceuticals, the high quickly flatlines and we're left with a dull sensation.

There's a weariness that sets in halfway through John Ahlin and Christopher Patrick Mullen's intermittently absorbing character study "ChipandGus." The two playwrights also serve as directors and the title (and only) characters in this intimate two-hander. Almost all of the action unfolds during the course of a ping-pong game, which makes for great lively stage business. The problem is they try to cram too many dramatic peaks into a ninety-minute match resulting in forced and shallow catharsis. If instead of one match we saw scenes from dozens of matches over the decades of their friendship, then crucial information could be planted with nuance and the drama could be built more organically.

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma's epic endeavor "Life and Times" is nearing its conclusion and shows no sign of losing steam. When introducing Episode 8 at the French Institute Alliance Française the other week, co-artistic director Pavol Liska was asked to give a summary of previous episodes, which began with an eight-hour four-episode marathon at the Public Theater before morphing genres into film and animation. One episode even took the form of a book. His response was perfect: "Just think about your own life until about age 25. It's like that." While that might sound flippant it's actually quite accurate. The text drawn unedited from a sixteen-hour conversation Liska and co-artistic director Kelly Cooper had with a company member where they asked her to tell them everything she remembers about her life from birth. It's filled with "ums" and "likes" and completely devoid of any intentional drama or artificial embellishment, but it is utterly moving in a way not unlike "Our Town" and causes you to look back on your own life.

Death is the topic at hand in "The Undertaking," specifically understanding it and if there's any knowledge that would lead to the acceptance of it. This introspective two-hander is the work of The Civilians artistic director Steve Cosson who is the star of the show but is played by actor Dan Domingues. It unravels like a modern Socratic dialogue yet never feels didactic or even like it's heading to a predetermined place. In the end, it's not about a magic piece of knowledge but our ability to find community in the grappling of the unknowable.

Cirque du Soleil's new steampunk-inspired show "Kurios" relies less on its performers' immense physical talents and more on the artistry of illusion crafted by writer and director Michel Laprise. In one scene a dining table on the floor is mirrored high in the air with the acrobats artfully suspended upside down. It's a technical feat but also calls into question the idea of parallel universes and the time-space continuum.

Master of senses Simon McBurney does linguistic dances around string theory while questioning time as a fixed concept in his engaging and expansively imagined new show, "The Encounter." Sennheiser headphones draped on each seat provide an intimate sonic experience that could prove to be a game changer in live theater. When he whispers into the right ear of a head-shaped multi-directional microphone, you can feel his breath over your shoulder. I often found myself closing my eyes and when I did, the sensations multiplied. McBurney has an electric way of speaking in front of an audience where he savors each syllable while simultaneously racing through descriptions and thoughts at a free-associative speed. The show begins unassumingly with the house lights up and him talking about his family and how our bodies react to the sound equipment. The "real" story is about a photojournalist's search for the origin of the Amazon River, but I found McBurney's asides and riffs to be the most emotionally gripping moments of the evening which could call into question our notion of "story" as a fixed idea.

Taylor Mac is going to conclude his wildly ambitious 24-decade history of pop music on Saturday with a 24-hour marathon performance. I caught the final two acts this past week, which make up over six hours. During each act I've seen, Mac bellows "perfection is for assholes" as a kind of deviant and yet welcoming mantra. Freeing us of judgment not only of him but also of ourselves. There are many moments where audience participation is demanded, but you'll only draw wrath from Mac if you decline to participate. During a scene in the 1950s recreating white flight to the suburbs, a few people stubbornly remained seated while the rest of us dutifully fled to the far sides and back of the St. Ann's wonderfully expansive space. We were allowed to return after a few minutes while they were banished to the back for the show's duration. In a more whimsical moment when we were recreating a nightclub scene, Mac asked a man to "pretend like you're ordering a drink." He struck a pose smiling widely and Mac retorted, "That's how you order a drink?" and then softly, "Okay."

Most of the participation feels ridiculous on the face of it, and he often precedes a request with a warning: "This is going to go on longer than you want it to." This could actually be the tagline for the whole show. While breathing rhythmically during one extended stretch, I felt the limits of my vocal chords, but each of the actions, no matter how silly or awkward, brings us closer to the show. A particularly moving one was a same-sex slow dance to a Ted Nugent song rearranged as a lullaby by music director Matt Ray, who deserves a lot of credit for his lush and inventive arrangements that imbue historical context and introspection into many of the songs. "You Are My Sunshine" is used to great effect leading up to World War II to signal the birth of Nazism. During the Nugent slow dance there were giggles throughout the crowd at first but then they faded into a solemn and profound moment of acceptance.

On the music front, I was impressed by Portland-based indie-folk group Blind Pilot. They have a way of effortlessly flowing out sticky melodies through simple chord progressions. Lead singer Israel Nebeker has a natural way of talking to the audience like he would to friends if they were hanging out in his living room during a set. He confessed that he wrote "Three Rounds and a Sound" as a breakup song while he was at a wedding and now it's being played by couples at weddings. There's a concise and haunting beauty in lines like "soil and six feet under / kept just like we were / before you knew you'd know me / and you know me." At their best Blind Pilot feels like they're following in the steps of The Head and the Heart to create songs our lives will unfold to that are life-affirming with a tinge of devastation.

Melissa Errico has one of the smoothest voices on Broadway. She has the uncanny ability to tackle dramatic phrases without a hint of harshness in her voice, so it's not surprising to find a warmth pulsing through her show, "Funny! I'm a Woman with Children" at 54 Below. The title could use some fine-tuning but the show is tight. Early on she crooned, "where are the words I've longed to hear" from a song that was cut from "My Fair Lady" and replaced with "I Could Have Danced All Night" because it was deemed too romantic. She talked about falling in love with her husband, tennis star Patrick McEnroe, and often gestured to their children who sitting with their friends near the stage. There was some unintended humor when she sang "Children Will Listen" amidst a din of little voices, but it also brought us closer to the song. Another surprising highlight was the Shawn Colvin song, "Never Saw Blue Like That," which burst with a joy of newly found anticipation.

There's an unavoidable dreaded anticipation that pulses through "Christine" (opening in theaters October 14th) for anyone even slightly familiar with the story of '70s television reporter Christine Chubbuck, but director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich mine a lot of warmth from her dark sarcastic quips delivered with razor sharp precision by Rebecca Hall. Without talking about the subject too directly, Campos and Shilowich paint a vivid and harrowing portrait of being caught in the throes of depression and how it so convincingly distorts her world. Through superb performances by Tracey Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith Cameron, Michael C. Hall, and Timothy Simmons we see the uncrossable abyss that opens up between Christine's perception and reality. And yet we're left not just feeling sorry for her but feeling grateful for the privilege to get to know her if only for a little while.