I’ve never been much of the theater type and will never pretend to know the ins and outs of “good” versus “bad” theater. This lack of enthusiasm and expertise extends across the entire range of theater, from the classical to the avant garde, though I suspect my patience diminishes significantly with the latter.
But — although just a marginally interested skeptic — I am convinced that theater is somehow innately good for you, like Vitamin C, and I feel certain that performance is incredibly important, like, say, Abraham Lincoln. As such, my wife and I packed up the kids (girls aged 9 and 11) and headed out to Otter Creek, Maine for the finale performance of Suite Limpet by Dru Colbert and Lisa Levearton.
On the ride over from Bar Harbor I tried to manage the kids’ expectations that this event wouldn’t be like the Shakespeare performance of Twelfth Night that was unwinding simultaneously at the College of the Atlantic. (I also promised it wouldn’t last as long, which seemed critical to them). I seem to remember saying, “This might stretch your understanding of performance a bit. “
It didn’t take long to get that point across. As soon as we had parallel parked and walked the 50 yards to the Otter Creek Hall we were met by half a dozen “limpets” – a marine snail characterized by their conical shells. The common limpet, Patella vulgata, measures a few inches across, but these were indeed much larger. They were in fact humanoid limpets, actors dressed in brown, not distant relatives to a teenage mutant ninja turtle, making sucking noises and strange, hard-to-interpret lurching movements across the front lawn and up the front entrance stairs.
I’m not sure what was more entertaining: the humanoid limpets, my girls’ reaction to the humanoid limpets, a neighborhood dogs’ fear of the humanoid limpets, or the neighborhood kids’ who stared, completely perplexed, at the humanoid limpets and the everything else going on at the Hall.
Yes it was entertaining, but it was when one aforementioned limpet began gnawing, gently and limpet-like, on my hand that the light bulbs starting going off: Where did the performance stop and reality begin? Would it be the same if I weren’t here? What were the intentions of the creators, of the actors, of the ticket-holders, of the neighbors? Was I “in” or “at” a performance? How did all this come together on a Sunday in October to make up the slice of reality I was currently experiencing?
Now I’ve already underscored my naïveté around theater, but I have been steeped in anthropological discourse on postmodernism and I know that performers and theater critiques have explored these kinds of “porous boundary” questions for millennia. But for me – and even for my girls – Suite Limpet brought all of those interesting questions front and center.
But that wasn’t the only point Colbert and Levearton hoped to get across in Suite Limpet. They also sought to tell a story of place, a small outpost of Mount Desert Island called Otter Creek. They succeeded there as well.
Up the stairs and in the foyer, Suite Limpet set out a number of historical and geographical markers for the viewer – an authentically dressed 18th-century woman of historical importance (whose name escapes me) penning a note back to France, two “television heads,” and a fantastical description of an absolutely incredible but real fish, the oarfish (worth looking up – the oarfish can reach 17 feet long and can predict earthquakes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oarfish).
The show began (or did it? Or had it started while I read the oarfish description?; walking up the stairs?: parking the car?) with bus driver Jarly Bobadilla escorting the crowd to their seats on a tour bus situated in the main hall. The tour brought us through four distinct views of the historical development of Otter Creek using wall shadows, readings, figurines, and dialogue between and among the bus driver and his limpet helpers. My kids were confused and started shining flashlights at the limpets (we were all asked to bring flashlights and binoculars – again, was this “confused kids with flashlights” part of Dru and Lisa’a intention?). I was confused too but had the patience and wherewithal and inspiration to put the pieces together. Here, Suite Limpet made you work, which is yet another thing I hadn’t considered or experienced in any other of my prior outings to theater.
Of course things got more interesting for the kids when we were escorted onto a “real” bus. My family, knowing that things are always more fun where the bumps are more pronounced, fled to the back of the bus. Unlike all bus trips I’ve been on – and epitomized by a recent trip to Maine’s Common Ground Fair with 50 sixth graders – no one said a word. No one instructed us to be silent, but we behaved like a group of third graders recently threatened with detention. Complete silence. And off we went.
Jarly the bus driver was replaced by a real driver who didn’t say anything. Questions of “who’s an actor” blossomed to “where’s the stage” quite nicely and powerfully. Winding our way through Otter Creek, we were now either “on” the stage or “in” the scene. I gave up on the utility of prepositions.
By this time night had fallen. Mix darkness with flashlights and you get a light show, all the time. The reflective interior roof of the bus played with the light. Adults and kids alike made creepy monster faces with lights-under-the-chin tricks. We rode by limpets performing on the side of the rode and I started to ask questions like “how did they possibly beat the bus here” and “how did Dru and Lisa manage to convince Acadia National Park that this “tour” was sanctioned? and “was this tour sanctioned?”
The breath of fifty odd passengers steamed the windows and I could only imagine what the humanoid limpets saw as we cleaned the bus window interiors with our forearms. We passed a deer on the side of the road and my nine year old turned to me and asked, “Did they ‘plant’ that deer there”? I said “No, silly,” but then questioned my own confidence.
The highlight for me was the scene off the bus, in the middle of the dark, somewhere in Otter Creek, somewhere in history. The limpets ushered us off the bus and guided us along a small, perfectly situated culvert whose waters ran loudly and echoed beneath the old granite bridge. Faceless musicians performed and the limpets danced in unison. If my old, skeptical, non-theater-going self could only see me now, transfixed on humanoid limpets dancing along the shore!
We were revisited by the fishermen, by Madame Maria Theresa De Gregoire (the name came to me), and of course by the limpets of the foyer. The bus driver’s stories emerged anew under the night sky. We all peered out across Otter Cove, to the other side, west or east I wasn’t sure, and stood in silence, waiting, wondering how this would all end. Again, there was no audible instruction, only each audience member’s suggestion at what to pay attention to next – this was a self guided tour, or, better, a selves guided tour.
Half expecting fireworks or some laser light show on the opposite shore, I wasn’t at all disappointed by a faint light illuminating a small structure that I always knew was there, but always questioned its purpose. This was its purpose.
Back on the bus and back to the fixed stage my daughter wondered aloud at the lights shining in neighborhood houses – were they aware of us? I scared myself when the thought crossed my mind – what if I’m the only audience member here?
The show “ended” back on the more fixed stage where the passage of time and tides were told by the Madame herself and by the revolutions of Earth and Moon.
Suite Limpet. Sweet Jesus! – did it open my mind and make me rethink and reconsider the validity and utility of theater and performance. The production and attention to detail was extremely smart. Suite Limpet struck the perfect balance between fun and serious and between making my mind work and letting my mind relax. I’ll never look at Otter Creek, think about landscape history, and consider reality in quite the same way.