Sensing Silence: Ars Mechanica’s “Show and Tell Alexander Bell” at SummerWorks

Reviewed in this essay: Show and Tell Alexander Bell, Ars Mechanica. Ran August 8-18, 2013 at the SummerWorks Performance Festival.

I need to start this review with an apology to Mary, the lovely telephone operator played by Sasha Kovacs who politely, if a little desperately, asked for my digits upon entering the theatre. I obliged, although I soon discovered that I would not be able to fulfill my promise of keeping in touch.  I had forgotten my cell phone at home.

Amidst stunning choreography and video projection work that explored the relationship between Alexander Graham Bell, and Mabel and Eliza Bell—his wife and mother, respectively, who were both deaf—the audience received text messages from Mary.  The messages included salient Bell quotations and historical tid-bits.  Real time responses were welcome.

Bell Summerworks Mother Piano Press PhotoMy experience of Show and Tell Alexander Bell (in which I felt rather lonely without a phone to check) only served to illustrate one of the main themes of the work: that so much of today’s world has been shaped by our constant need to connect with one another, and in Bell’s case, the two people who were closest to him.  Natalie Mathieson played a woman representing Mabel and Eliza simultaneously, while director Vojin Vasovic played Alexander Bell or “someone like him” as the program elegantly suggests—widening the characters’ scope beyond their historical specificities to play with notions of communication and connection at a much broader level.

The choreographed scenes, largely without dialogue, were highly imagistic movement sequences that explored possible relationships between Alexander and Mabel/Eliza.  Throughout the scenes, playful interaction with the audience extended past the use of text messaging. During one very clever scene, the characters sat down for tea while a projected message warned the audience that there would be very loud noise and asked everyone to insert the earplugs they had been given earlier.  There was no loud noise at all, but the earplugs brought the audience sensorially into the extreme silence of those who lived closest to Bell.

What really sets this company apart is their broad application of the term “technology.”  They are not only interested in the integration of film, projection, and mobile technologies in performance, but also the most basic of technologies—objects functioning as an extension of the body, the mechanics of the body itself, and even good ol’ magic tricks (I won’t give any of the magic away, but one particular moment elicited a communal gasp from the crowd).

So often in shows that set out to explicitly use technology, the result is novel, but not necessarily integral to the performance.  Not only is Ars Mechanica exploring a fun, interactive relationship to the audience, but by sharing historical context via text we were taken on a journey through the company’s process of creating the work.  At one point, we were sent an archival photograph that clearly fed into the design of a later scene.  Ars Mechanica may have provided us with a highly fictionalized version of Alexander Bell’s life, but by allowing the audience so many ways to come inside the work, it was the most vivid history lesson I have ever experienced.