Performance Gallery has contributed a show to every Cincinnati Fringe Festival; they’re the only company that's been back six years in a row. But if you’ve seen one of their pieces, don’t think you can bypass KAZ/m.
Truth to tell, none of their works much resemble one another beyond the qualities of profound creativity, inventive writing and admirable acting. The 2009 piece was motivated by a magazine essay about the effect of a suicide on family and friends, but if you know that information in advance, you’ll wonder how it comes to play.
Here’s a tip: Read “KAZ/m” as the word “chasm” for a hint about how this show works. It’s an exploration of the spaces that divide us, just as that slash divides three uppercase letters from one that’s lowercase. With lots of interplay between words and images, Performance Gallery’s Fringe show is built from scripts by two writers, Brian Andrews-Griffin and Nathan Singer.
One of those pieces is about Noah and Lynn, a brother and a sister (Allison Scherzer and Paul Lieber) who return to their hometown after the suicide of a childhood friend. They have differing perspectives on why he might have done this, and their roles and positions shift as they banter and argue at his wake. Noah starts off flippant and caustic, while Lynn is sensitive and remorseful. But as they interact, he becomes more emotional and she ends up consoling him.
The other piece is more surreal: A frustrated and unsuccessful writer (played by two people, Aretta Baumgartner and Derek Snow, dressed alike — but she’s a narrator and he’s a character in the drama) bemoans his inability to create a piece with power — or even one that some publisher will pay him for. He’s haunted by several of his characters — an over-the-hill hipster (J.T. Carr), an Amish woman (Jodie Linver), a faded actress (Willemien Patterson) and a tough-as-nails military man (Daryl Harris). We eventually learn that each of them is a suicide, too, and angry at their unfinished states.
The surreal piece is presented first, and the writer is then badgered by his dead characters to write something new, “a wake for all suicides.” That piece is the story of Noah and Lynn. If this all sounds a bit morose, that’s not the whole effect: In fact, KAZ/m has a lot of humor — a noisy radio (tuned to a “suicide rock” station, KAZM) that keeps interrupting the brother-and-sister diagnosis of their friend’s irrational departure; the hipster’s outdated and fuzzy recollections of great moments in Rock and his disdain for disco; the Amish woman’s total disconnection from everyday life.
But there is a core of sadness in each of them that surfaces as the show accumulates meaning. Their rapt attention to the conversation of Noah and Lynn distills their desire to know the unknowable.
The production makes excellent, often humorously ironic, use of projected images and text: At one point, as the frustrated writer is troubled by his lack of success, the screen flashes these words: “Not many artists commit suicide by jumping off the pinnacle of success.” As a backdrop for these accomplished actors, the visuals often underscore how words are sometimes the tools we use to try to wrestle meaning from something that doesn’t make sense.
About an hour in length (and presented in the now defunct New Stage Collective theater space), KAZ/m wrestles with unanswerable questions: “Why did you do it?” “Why did he leave?” Lynn is angry that she cannot connect the dots to understand her friend’s death; Noah tells her there are no dots to connect. That’s the frustration not to mention the poetic power of this piece, an urge to fill a void — a chasm — that really cannot be filled.
Performed at New Stage Collective through June 5. See performance dates and preview here.