Chicago Theatre Review
Tangles and Plaques
A new play by Kirsten Riiber and the Neo-Futurists
This is the place where memories live. Where they spark and and glow and shift. This is where memories die, too. Actress/Writer/Creator/Neo-Futurist Kirsten Riiber (Kristen Riiber) and Counseling Psychologist Alex Schwaninger (Alex Schwaninger) have set up this play, Tangles and Plaques, to introduce us to the frightening but unavoidable destiny of dementia. As the population grows steadily older, the already high amount of individuals dealing with memory loss or cognitive impairment will skyrocket, and those who are young will be forced to become caregivers, a role most are unprepared to play.
To ease the audience into a sense of not only of the effects of dementia, but the methods of treating it, director Jen Ellison and the amazing curation of TD and designer John Ross Wilson, have helped Riiber transform the Neo-futuranium into a memory bunker. A room in Memory Care treatment designed to conjure memories of childhood and adolescence in a care facilities, “Savvy Circle”. A bunker draws upon the lighthouses that keep the storm of a clotted mind at bay: routine, improvisational agreement and storytelling. A lot like the theater. And, since the play is geared for folk in their twenties and early thirties, to give us a taste of the Savvy experience this memory bunker is steeped in 90’s artifacts, images, and vibe.
This is the closest I’ve ever seen to the non-artifice theater the Neo-futurists strive for. Riiber and her ensemble (Kaitlyn Andrews, Ida Cuttler, Justin Deming, Michael Hamilton, Nick Hart, and Dan Kerr-Hobert) bound about sharing their memories and recreating our own. Some of the set dressing is both hilarious and magical like rain running down the window, or the sound of a car rolling by, or a first kiss by the glow of a ghost light. There are games, conversations, masterfully improvised songs, mid-action improvements. Even Stage Manager and Multimedia designer Kate Hardiman gets in on the action. It seems, at points, like the only difference between audience and performer is who’s read the script and who has the gift of seeing this for the first time; which is a wonderful feeling to have.
But of course, Dementia isn’t a playground and a picnic; not to live with certainly not to live in. As Riiber walks us through the death of memories, the space turns against us. Lighting Designer John Kelly, before so cunning, plunges us into darkness and cruelly showcases a places where the memories we once enjoyed together used to be; forcing us, however briefly, into a mind with ever more swiftly shuttering rooms. As Anderson observes from her own experience, “When the conversation turns to my uncle’s dementia that’s where the conversation stops.” That’s harder when the shoes of a sufferer have been forced on your own feet.
Tangles and Plaques isn’t just an issue play. It doesn’t just draw in and then draw away from the sad misfortune that might affect us, or a family member, or almost inevitably someone we love and admire. Unlike any “issue” play I’ve seen before, it busies itself with means of correcting its issue and our perception of it. For all we need to be caretakers is patience, an ability to say yes to proposed improbable circumstances and say it whole heartedly, and take the time to make a connection with a stranger. Just like when you go to the theater. It gives us the tools, real concrete precepts, to be better people, in the midst of sterling remembrances and an evening you are not likely to forget.
Highly, deeply, enthusiastically recommended by Ben Kemper
Tangles and Plaques by the Neo-Futurists
The Neo-Futuranium 5153 N Ashland (at Foster). Best Accessed from the Berwyn Redline stop.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30. Tickets range $10-25. Contact 773.275.5255 or neofuturists.org
70 minutes, no intermission.
For more information on this or other productions visit theaterinchicago.org