There are only so many ways to describe the Jessica Scott's avant-garde Ship of Fools, currently at HERE Arts Center. On the one hand, it is a unique combination of original music, puppetry, video, and live action, yet on the other it comes across as disjointed and meaningless—imagine Disney’s “It’s a Small World” born in the 1960s Haight-Ashbury. The audience is seated on a platform that moves left or right, and sometimes rotates completely, giving the performers time to set up the next vignette on the perimeter. The challenge of this production is that it is a series of quirky, random scenes with little, if any, cohesiveness. Is the audience on the ship observing the fools, or is the audience really the fool?
While some of the pieces stand on their own, too many of them begin to tell a story, then stop as the audience is moved again. Three characters appear, hand-in-hand, with their backs to the audience; they are dressed in grayish tulle dresses and large, Medusa-like wigs. Modern dance movement ensues, and then they pull tight, they sway, and a model of a three-masted ship appears above their wigs as if they are riding the high seas. It crashes and sinks. The actors “melt” into their dresses, leaving only the dresses and wigs. The audience rotates.
In another scene a woman stands on a box dressed in a nightgown with a large, black, ringlet-type wig. Hands appear from behind her, caressing her, until they pull open the dressing gown. A hand with a knife slices open her belly revealing guts and intestines, which the hands pull out of her while her eyes express shock and fear. The hand proceeds to slice off the top of her head, her eyes look up, and the hands pull out more body parts. The top of her head is replaced. Rotate audience.
A miniature puppet scene on an elevated revolving platform displays a psychiatrist and a woman on a fainting couch. The psychiatrist appears to write while the woman is clearly agitated. The scene then turns to show a painter and a model. It switches between the scenes until the wall in the middle is pulled away and the scenes become a single one, whirling around. The audience rotates again.
One interesting scene in this tonally dark production that stands out uses film, video, and six large white screens on wheels, hinged together in threes. The screens are used to display vintage film of women in a psychiatric ward; however, the screens are manipulated from behind to stretch and bend the images, elongating or compressing features. The film switches to video of a woman with bare shoulders loosely wrapped in a shawl. Her image is distorted, and the screens continue to move but also open in the middle to show the woman seated on the floor in front of a video camera. It is an intelligent and creative visual representation of how the mind distorts truth.
Conceived by Scott, Ship of Fools is co-directed by Eamonn Farrell, who is credited with text and projection design. Credits are also given to Anonymous Ensemble, who helped design the production; that may explain the lack of cohesive thought. Original music is by Alex Klimovitsky, with lyrics by Farrell.
Near the end of the 75-minute production, an actress in a gown stands in front of a microphone accepting an award. The screens are utilized again, on either side of her, with a woman’s face displayed in two halves. Text, attributed to famous actresses’ acceptance speeches, appears in one of the corners. The microphone stand in front of her moves and sways; sometimes it modulates her voice (sound is by Gavin Price, also a musician) and at other times she moves with it, trying to pretend nothing is wrong. The microphone rocks forward and back, appearing to attack her until she yanks it from the stand. A long, diaphanous piece of cloth is pulled in between her and the audience, who then rotate away. The cloth undulates to simulate waves, leaving one to question, Where is the ship? Who’s the fool?
Ship of Fools is performed through Oct. 22 at the HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave., just below Spring Street; entrance is on Dominick Street). Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with additional shows at 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit here.org/shows/detail/1822.