Don’t be discouraged if you don’t fully understand The Nerve Tank’s A Gathering. Even its director, Melanie S. Armer, didn’t understand Chance D. Muehleck’s text when she first read it: “Because I couldn’t make sense of this piece, I put it aside.” Many of us react similarly, sometimes in a knee-jerk fashion, to dense experimental texts, but we shouldn’t; they are often outstanding, thought-provoking pieces, and Mr. Muehleck’s A Gathering is among them. Forget about time, space and plot; they don’t exist — at least as we know them – in A Gathering, which is billed as a “metaphysical thriller,” and has been significantly expanded from an earlier 10-minute version. Not much can be said with absolute certainty, but it is safe to say that Bantam, Fuller and Alaska, the play’s characters (or “personas,” as Mr. Muehleck calls them) are anxiety-riddled, disembodied entities stuck, at least for the time being, with each other, recalling the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
We first meet these personas in what may be the remnants of a house, largely destroyed by some unseen force which they fear may return. Together, they may be/have been involved in some petty criminal enterprise, but it’s unclear, as is whether Fuller may have committed a murder before the play begins. In A Gathering gender and ages are blurred. Bantam, a man over 50, is played by a woman less than 40 years of age. Alaska, a 16-year old female persona, who may or may not have died as an infant, is played by a man in his 30s.
When we meet them, Alaska is trying to recall the contents of the house’s rooms. Her success in this endeavor appears to be a matter crucial to the continued existence of these personas. The three personalities desperately attempt to reconstruct, from memory, the contents of the room, the house, their former reality. They are caught somewhere between time and space, disrupted by an unseen force, searching for some kind of salvation.
The text, relying on its audience to form a gestalt from the mosaic it presents, is not looking to be understood like a traditional narrative. The personas interact and separate, again and again, sometimes subjecting each other to supernatural abuse and ultimately spinning off, as whatever “reality” had been holding them together disintegrates, into tormented fountains of individual language.
At 3,600 square feet, The Brooklyn Lyceum may well be the most cavernous Off-Off Broadway venue in New York City. A former municipal bathhouse, the structure is a century old with an interior ideal for sound designer Stephan Moore’s far off echoes, water sounds and assorted rumblings. Its concrete, brick and twisted metal core offers the characters space to perform some very physical gyrations as expressions of distress. Brian Barefoot as Fuller is particularly athletic and nimble. He jogs up one staircase, plunges down another, and slides across the floor, all the while hiding from the unseen threat and confronting Alaska, whom he mistrusts but to whom he is also attracted.
Because these curious entities appear to retain human characteristics such as hunger and libido, the confusion builds. Are they people? Ghosts perhaps? Are they in something like hell? In the end, you stop wondering and try to focus on the language of the personas, individually and as they interact with each other, and even with the audience.
A Gathering is a bold, exciting work that pushes and frequently explodes the boundaries of conventional theater. It won’t be for everyone, but if you enjoy intrepid, brash new work, you’ll find this production to be greater than the sum of its parts.