It’s clear that the restrictions of the past year just can’t keep creative theater artists down.
Case in point: Cutting Ball Theater’s new, recorded streaming production, “Phantasmagoria,” a crazy, inventive collaboration with two local groups: the devised theater ensemble Mugwumpin, and Bay Area Theatre Cypher, a hip-hop/musical/theater quartet founded by Dan Wolf and Phil Wong.
In a swirling, poetic and comedic mix of text, performance, color, collage, spoken-word, music and sound score, the 50-minute piece, directed by Cutting Ball’s Ariel Craft, explores the notion of self-identity in various ways.
At the beginning, two lone Beckettian figures — ghosts, in fact, beautifully played by Akaina Ghosh and Maria Marquis in clownish, quasi-Elizabethan costumes (by Sarah LeFeber) — are struggling to communicate through tin cans attached to strings, a child’s idea of a walkie-talkie.
Each is trapped within a separate, cramped enclosure. “No ghost of any common sense begins a conversation,” remarks one. Sometimes all they hear through the tin cans are weird sounds.
The text—spoken by the two ghosts and by a voiceover that emanates from a variety of unexpected places —is taken from Lewis Carroll. It comprises bits and pieces of the author’s “verse story” of the same name, plus fragments of his “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”
“I have not seen thy sunny face nor heard your bits of poetry,” sighs one forlorn ghost. Each clutches a shawl that they occasionally hover beneath as they work their way through fits of curiosity, hope and fear, anxiety, delight and utter confusion—just like the rest of us, especially in this past year of confinement and chaos.
The mysterious voiceover intones, “This is real,” but also, later, “You know very well you’re not real.”
The ghosts gaze into hand mirrors, gasping in horror at what they see there. “I feel somehow as if I were invisible,” says one. And, later, “Who am I?” and “I know who I am even inside the dark.”
It’s all wonderfully nonsensical, contradictory —Alice in her surreal dream world. At one point, a ghost converses with a large chocolate chip cookie dangling mid-air. “One doesn’t like changing so often,” she says, plaintively, and then, as she contemplates escaping her confines, “Can you tell me which way to go from here?” The cookie replies, in patented Wonderland riddle form: “That depends on where you want to get to.”
Interspersed throughout, along with a few powerful spoken-word pieces, are monster-figures wandering the actual city streets, and Dolores Park — visions that perhaps tempt the trapped ghosts to explore their own options.
Which, ultimately, they do.
Cutting Ball Theater’s “Phantasmagoria” streams through May 23; tickets are $25 per household. Visit cuttingball.com.
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.