Playground Lessons, A Review
© Artwork by Katarina Keca and Ramanique Ahluwalia.
Written By Zennie Trieu
A group of post-grad NYC-based artists come together for a downtown Manhattan live performance incorporating a series of physical vignettes, ranging from spoken word to abstract movement. Their ensemble-driven work explores queer identity, self-expression during youth and the present, and the possibility for social and cultural rebellion to unite rather than alienate.
If you want to know what kind of artist Abi Lieff is, consider how, when asked about her experience directing and producing “Playground Lessons”—the performance she is also currently starring in, along with ten of her fellow actors, movement performers, and friends—, her line of thinking goes first to her collective ensemble’s process, rather than to her own personal journey. “There was no idea we couldn’t bring in or share. Everyone was all hands on deck, equally invested,” she explains to me.
This sense of communitas, as well as Abi’s generosity as both leader and collaborative artist, was evident from the first few moments of the opening night performance. When you walk into a playing space that’s all white (such was the studio in the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory on West Fourteenth Street), there can be a certain urge to want to fill up the entirety of the room—with paint, with personality, with some kind of happening or event. What can you turn that space into, and how can you leave your mark for future visitors to notice?
Abi’s team members—as individuals and as a group—do not seem too focused on trying to fill up the whole space, and that might be due to the fact that they are more keen on making sure each moment of their under-ninety-minute performance is utilized to its most effective capability. There is no second that is gratuitous or taken for granted. This is not a small-sized cast—each member is aware that, together as an ensemble, they will leave a lasting impression, but they have to be more mindful of living in the world of the play, moment by moment, rather than trying to be big or unforgettable.
“The show’s process was an incredibly organic one,” Abi tells me. “As first time directors [with Mackian], it was an incredibly nerve-wracking world to be thrown into, so to have a group of artists like these ones was a blessing.” The actors in “Playground Lessons” are not afraid to be seen or to be heard, particularly when it comes to matters of the breath. That may sound trivial, but consider how many times in our daily lives we do not wish for others to know that we are inhaling or exhaling: we are nervous on the subway and want to make sure we don’t make too much noise, we feel not particularly strong during a CrossFit class and do not wish for others to know how difficult the day’s kettle bell complexes were, we don’t want to betray our feelings when having an intense conversation with a special person. Very often, breath is the unspoken signal for how to move forward in communication: I am ready; I’m not ready. I’m scared; I’m stunned. I love you; I can’t do this with you anymore.
But Abi’s ensemble is fearless in letting the act of breathing become an organic, grounding center of their performance. Towards the beginning of the show, three cloaked actors engage in careful, synchronized, and explorative movement. Their movement alone would have felt fascinating, but what makes their work engaging is the breath that connects them all to one another. These are living and breathing fellow humans. They are connected to each other as we are to them.
There is a recurring vignette, bursting with raw palpability, between co-director Mackian and Buchanan Highhouse where their bodies are continually yet gracefully flung towards, against, and in simultaneity with each other. When the two actors are on opposite ends of the room, their persistent eye contact and potently grounded bodies prove that they are intrigued and invested in one another, but it’s the vocalized grunts and releases of breath that convey to the audience just how available they are to be affected by the other.
The breathing—a core component of the Williamson Technique, which Abi and Mackian both specialize in as trainees of Julia Crockett & Group—is what also makes moments that incorporate the entire cast—including the stellar Tallie Gabriel on the cello, a musical accompaniment that would also work in a Yorgos Lanthimos film—feel focused and singular, even when the movement can be intentionally chaotic and disorienting for the actors’ characters attempting to take the reigns on their sexuality or challenge the societal norms of what is an “appropriate” identity. With an electrifying sound design by Chris Tse that includes a number of New Order-esque club hits (that could probably belong in this world), the group is effective in portraying to us the confusing, estranging, and devastating consequences of holding back your individuality, as well as depicting the joys and formidable discoveries of no longer just standing back and watching other people dance, but finally jumping in and letting yourself groove until your body becomes one part of a whole.
Vulnerability is the connecting thread between every scene, whether those scenes involve one person reacting to gender normative television or a whole group of people trying to figure out what actually feels sexy to them as opposed to what’s been taught as supposedly tantalizing.
“Something I have definitely taken away from this whole experience is learning the importance of having the courage to go towards my fear. If an idea came up that I was scared to execute, that meant I needed to do it,” Abi acknowledges. “I’ve never felt more challenged or fulfilled working on something. It allowed me to really detach myself from the result of the show, and really use the rehearsals as a laboratory, because the show isn’t about me. It’s about all of us. It’s about humanity. It was simply bigger than myself, so checking my own ego and anxiety for how it would be perceived was a necessity to allow for any creativity.”
Most admirably, Abi’s humble attitude did not prevent her and her teammates from being self-assured and commanding when such go-getting was necessary. There are three vignettes where one of the cast members elucidates on a topic that some of us may feel too shy to further investigate upon on our own: Chris Tse, always a force to be reckoned with, touches upon assumptions on sexuality based on everything shallow like your clothing and the octave in which your usual speaking voice falls into; the universally adored Nate Shinners explains a healthy way to use a douchebag and why having a clean rear-end is a godsend that we can achieve on our own if we’re diligent; and Abi, endearingly affable, teaches her always game co-star Taylor Turner three of her favorite ways to have sex via demonstration with him, ranging from detached when with a new girlfriend to liberated and wholly intimate when with a woman she’s in love with. All three of these scenes are without haughty didacticism or cavalier self-deprecation. These are learning moments, and the lessons are given to us with open hands in hopes that we continue to let our hearts and minds expand only further.
Resolutions in artwork are always more satisfying when they’re earned and perfectly timed. The credits to Capra’s films, for instance, always seem to roll right after the characters have found their way back to contentedness, taking just a moment or two to bask in their togetherness and happy ending. Almost all of the vignettes in “Playground Lessons” seem to end right before you think they will conclude. You are left wanting to know more, see more, and listen more. In particular, there is a scene incorporating all of the actors engaged in movements—some solo, some with others. One by one, each of them take a turn sharing a story about intimacy, sexuality, or identity, with some ending in triumph and most ending in heartbreak or uncertainty. Each of these short monologues ends in the phrase “I’ve never felt more—,” only to be cut by another person beginning to tell his or her own memory.
Even in regards to the performance as a whole, it felt as though the lights went black for the final time before anyone was expecting it, and that’s an obvious kudos to how engrossing the collaborative work was throughout the ninety minutes that felt more like an hour. I find that there’s something rare and reassuring in an event ending before you have time to prepare for its conclusion, or perhaps certain things have endings—much like many aspects of our exploration with identity, sexuality, and legacy—that ought to remain private and just for us, behind closed doors, for the eyes of only truly special people in our lives. Perhaps the most commendable thing for a live performance—especially, for two first-time directors!—is for the round of applause at the end to not truly feeling like some sort of conclusion. The end, at least with these actors’ work ethic and ambition for storytelling, is not yet actually here. The end is not even near. Things are only starting. Beginning again.
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Starring: Abi Lieff, Allie Shapiro, Ashil Lee, Buchanan Jackson Highhouse, Chris Tse, Haleyna Kociuk, Mackian Bauman, Margaret Remboski, Nate Shinners, Tallie Gabriel, and Taylor Turner.
Directed by Abi Lieff and Mackian Bauman. Produced by Abi Lieff. Lighting design by Nathan Rubio. Sound design by Chris Tse. Staged managed by Sydney Badway. Featuring music and sounds by Tallie Gabriel, Ramanique Ahluwalia, and NAKAYA.
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“Playground Lessons” will be shown at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory (104 West 14th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) in downtown Manhattan.
Friday, December 8th, at 8:00pm
Saturday, December 9th, at 3:00pm & 8:00pm