A Dim Sunbeam
A chair, a screen and a hanging lamp delineated a nondescript interior space, but above at the rear was an amazing view: what appeared to be the lunar landscape viewed outside a window, with the glowing blue-and-white Earth in the far distance. "Our Little Sunbeam," the most recent work by the Seattle-based troupe 33 Fainting Spells, had ambitions of exploring similarly divided and contrasting emotional perspectives. Its dual source material was a blend of Chekhov's "Ivanov" and the words used by NASA astronauts to describe their experiences of space travel.
Not having seen any earlier works by the Seattle-based 33 Fainting Spells, which was founded ten years ago by Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson (who are not related), I cannot place it in context of their larger oeuvre. They have acquired a considerable reputation, made at least three earlier New York appearances, and their track record has earned them a classy array of co-commissioners (DTW, On the Boards, Walker Art Center, the National Performance Network) and funders for "Our Little Sunbeam."
Quite wordy and often plodding, it is more text-driven than, apparently, earlier 33 Fainting Spells works were, and it coasts along in a blasé, uninvolving manner that belies the gift for theatrical magic that is praised in reports of previous pieces. From the early moments, when lissome Gaelen Hanson, with long tumbling blond hair, enacts their version of the Chekhov character Lebedev—a crass, boorish, laid-back hipster—and holds a microphone, while the actual raspy male voice we hear is a disembodied one, the performers seem convinced of the significance and resonance of their often puzzling and listless material.
Eventually, Linas Phillips, the work's third performer (and co-creator, along with the two Ms. Hansons) came down the right aisle, revealing himself to be the source of the vocals. He proceeded to provide the voice for Lebedev as well as Ivanov, in a discussion that ranged from financial concerns to Lebedev's daughter Sasha. On cue, when Sasha is mentioned, Dayna Hanson, who had been quietly sitting in a chair stage left, intently reading, joined the conversation—or the "action" such as it was. The Chekhov characters, in their hands, become laid-back, borderline inarticulate types who speak in annoying psychobabble.
One scene, in which the troubled Ivanovs go for marital counseling, keeps verging on clever but somehow, like most of the episodes, just lies there in a disembodied way. Ivanov is exasperated, without a clue as to what gets his wife, Anna (Gaelen Hanson also takes on this role) so troubled and insecure. Her whiny neediness is exaggerated by her inhaling helium from an oxygen tank, turning the image of an unhealthy, weakened woman into something ludicrous as she spills out her complaint in a cartoonish voice. Dayne Hanson is a scarily convincing model of distanced professionalism as the icy counselor, dispensing clichés and displaying not an ounce of human caring for the Ivanovs' predicament.
This humorous episode at least had some focus, which made it stand out amid the general aimlessness and carelessly arranged development of the material. One bit gets underway and then peters out, and something else then takes over, with a patchy randomness that seems to cry out for a surer theatrical hand to shape and delineate the proceedings. Dayna Hanson and Mr. Phillips have some sharp moments in their characters portrayals, shifting personas as needed with the use of some devastatingly well-chosen wigs. Gaelen Hanson has an intriguingly languid presence and the evening's one memorable, strangely beautiful and poignant dance sequence belongs to her. Wearing a stunningly draped black dress, in her guise as the fatally ill Anna, she sank and swayed with quiet intensity and desperation.
Otherwise, the dance element of "Our Little Sunbeam" was minimal, consisting of occasional quirky shuffles and gestures, sometimes performed by all three in unison. There less-than-focused incorporation of movement, as well as the portions of the piece when they indulged in questioning and analysis of their own creative process (they should leave this sort of thing to David Gordon) suggested they were following some post-modern handbook. They may have intriguing ideas about juxtaposing and contrasting their source materials, and may talk a good game—as in the program note's interview, where "opposing emotional realities" were mentioned—but cumulatively, the bits and pieces of "Our Little Sunbeam" (including the two stuffed owls engaged in philosophical conversation) kept their off-putting, self-satisfied distance. The ingenious set— actually eight hanging panels, on which video was at times projected, that offered that view of Earth as though seen from a parking spot on the moon—hung there tantalizingly, but as the puzzling action below played out, it achieved liftoff.
Photos by by Peter Mumford.