Though perfectly familiar with the theatrical term “black box space” (often a simple studio theatre which doesn’t feature scenery but has black walls/curtaining) I had yet to come across the term ”white box space”. This is the chosen theatrical performance area of Theater In Quarantine. It is the brainchild of American actor/director Joshua William Gelb who has converted a closet in his home into an intimate performance space measuring just 4’ x 8’ x 2’ and where he has experimented with the possibilities and limitations of that format.
The project began last April and has now built up a number of films of staged pieces. Not quite knowing what to expect, I thought I would start with a brief piece called The Neighbor which is based on a short story by Franz Kafka; this turned out to be TiQ’s first livestreamed piece. Given the original author it unsurprisingly is a tale of rampant paranoia as a man in his apartment becomes obsessed with the man next door; they are separated by a thin wall. Gelb plays both men in what rapidly turns into a mirror image ballet as they replicate each others’ movements more or less in synchronised time. Meanwhile a voice over tells the story which, in truth, is very slight; during the short duration the space in which it takes place is fully explored. What emerges is a surreal vision as Gelb shows increasing frustration with his counterpart and, of course, vice versa. Appropriately for the subject matter the whole thing is played through twice with the first set of choreographed movement being painstakingly recreated. The play has the air of an experiment, which I suppose is exactly what it is.
Spool forward from this initial exploration and we get to The 7th Voyage Of Egon Tichy, where the format has been greatly developed and the result is a highly amusing half hour of life on a spacecraft – a very small one. Again, it’s a one actor piece …well sort of. Gelb plays Egon adrift on a one-man mission after his craft is hit by a small piece of space debris and the ship’s rudder is damaged. He could fix it if only he had a colleague because it’s a two-person job. The rudderless ship enters some sort of time loop and the traveller finds himself encountering versions of his immediately future self. So, the problem with fixing the craft seems now to be achievable – except that it isn’t. For Egon argues with himself (literally) about how this can be carried out, and the endless bickering becomes more prominent than getting the job done. Especially as the number of selves who appear starts growing exponentially. Eventually the whole thing descends into a staged farce with Gelb playing all the parts.
It’s a witty examination of claustrophobia which looks and sounds great. Working with Sinking Ships Productions the possibilities of the limited closet space have been fully explored because this too is replicated along with the actor. Thus, he seems to appear in various parts of the “ship” sometimes crawling through narrow tunnelways, going up and down in elevators and, as this is outer space, sometimes living on the ceiling. The crazy premise also means that he can attack himself – principally with a frying pan – and sabotage his own attempts at sorting out the situation in which he finds himself. Gelb plays the humour deadpan and exhibits all the frustrations of someone who is locked up with himself and can’t escape the situation – how currently pertinent! The script by Josh Luxenberg is based on a story by science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem and has the quirkiness of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the John Carpenter film Dark Star. Splice this with the verbal wit and logical dexterity of Tom Stoppard and add in a dash of cartoon slapstick and you have the essence of this highly original and entertaining piece.
The Neighbor and The 7th Voyage Of Egon Tichy are available from the Theater In Quarantine website – click here
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