A band of kooky librarians. A raised wooden library. A multitude of books. A multitude of stories. Company SoGoNo's latest iteration of their magnificent production Art of Memory is inherently fragmented. Culled from a wide variety of source materials and decorated with video projections and a sound design mixed live, Art of Memory spins familiar stories anew. Tellingly, the source material listed in the program consists entirely of writers, from Anne Sexton to Gertrude Stein, who used short literary forms as a means of approaching the epic. Relying on the Jorge Luis Borges short story The Library of Babel for both its overarching structure and its point of departure, Art of Memory features Lisa Ramirez, who wrote the script, presiding over walls of books in the raised library at the center of the performance space, complete with a card catalogue that's evocative as a relic of a previous time. It's interesting to note that Borges' story, which reads the universe as a library containing every imaginable book connected together, anticipated a sense of the internet. Yet thankfully, Art of Memory resists the temptation to present its stories in an explicit riff on web 2.0. The intertextuality at play here privileges the whimsical over the technical.
Rather than suggest a sense of modernity, the production's technical elements evoke a remembered past. Video by Matt Tennie and James short along with animation by Michael Woody is projected onto the library shelves in a collage of shifting images, creating the illusion of books with perpetually shifting covers in a terrific visual interpretation of the Borgesian library. Sean Breault's set design includes a forest of white trees to the left of the library and a glowing moon to the right. With Bruce Steinberg's light design, the space above the stage is punctuated by both tiny gold lights and a constellation of open, rumpled books. It's an effective rendering of the notion that the universe is a library. It's also gorgeous.
Appropriate to a play whose title alludes to collective memory, the production deals largely in fairy tales. Like their more explicitly literary source material, fairy tales elicit a sense of the epic through concise, richly symbolic storytelling. In tandem with Ramirez, Tanya Calamoneri (who conceived and directed the project), Heather Harpham, and Cassie Terman narrate and enact stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Dressed in Victorianesque bloomers and then tooled beige dresses, their faces whitened (costume design by Mioko Mochizuki ), the weird sisterly trio inhabits the space beneath, around, and above Ramirez, though never enters the library proper. Fitting to a production which blurs distinctions between texts, the stories they perform borrow one another's motifs. Theirs is a storyscape in which the red shoes of The Red Shoes are locked in a Bluebeardian closet; where the inquisitive bride of Bluebeard becomes the penitent Girl Without Hands.
Calamoneri and Ramirez, with dramaturgical consultant Kenn Watt, clearly undertook extensive research in formulating the play. Yet Art of Memory is much removed from the well-researched, talky type of plays that often seem like they'd make better college lectures than works of art. Instead, Art of Memory is a production whose rich collection of stories and images are conveyed viscerally. It's not hard to imagine that its scenes could be individually sliced and taken out of context without losing their compelling effects, so tightly packed and precisely executed are each of the play's moments. As a carefully constructed whole, the effect is breathtaking: the production itself enacts the evocative fragmentation it purports to explore.