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PROCESSION TRANSGRESSION

PROCESSION, written and directed by Dan Shanahan for Torn Space Theatre, is billed as an exploration of ritual, spirituality and the transcendental nature of street culture. 
This extravaganza of light and sound opened in the Theosophical Society’s building on Military Road in Black Rock. Formerly a German Evangelical Church, the gothic structure is all but stripped of its Christian relics, save the stained glass windows, which are beautiful (and beautifully lit for this production). Even the windows are bereft of any religious connotation, the tight patterns of colored glass contain no papist images of the Blessed Virgin, proof that the German Reformation was still alive and kicking in the early twentieth century when the church was built.   
In its current state, the structure presents a solid and somewhat stolid atmosphere. The significance of the church’s appearance, more or less a blank canvas, is important in that it lends itself to the author’s concept that PROCESSION is an “original site-specific performance” where the “interior of the space becomes a central character, it is suggested that the space is telling the story, that the audience is experiencing the memories of the space’s interior.”  
Somewhere in Kaisertown an old Lutheran is spinning in his grave at the thought of what has become of his once pious Prussian Hallenkircke. In truth, Buffalo could use much more of this sort of artistic reuse of its old churches. 
The performance involves an “unnamed society” which is “dislodged from time.” They have experienced the past and have seen the future. The action is presented as a “procession” which is intended to “connect two aspects of the same person to their sacrifice.”
In theory, the drama is constructed through four “cycles”: Conception, Birth, Union and Death. In practice, I fear, not so much. 
Upon entering the church a greeter invites one to “visit” the “sleeping lady” who is laid out in a small antechamber off the vestibule. It is an odd display, the flat projection of a female on a three dimensional bed. Intended to imbue one in the atmosphere of the moment, perhaps to suggest a dream, it comes off as an amateurish tableau, complete with spooky sounds worthy of a Halloween Haunted House. It was not an auspicious start. 
Moving inside the nave, the central aisle was roped off. One was invited to move to the right or left and enter a pew from a side aisle. I chose the bride’s side and took a seat next to the central aisle, near the back of the church.  It was a fortuitous choice as it afforded the best possible sight lines, which are notoriously bad in most church structures, and this one was no exception. Throughout the performance people strained to see any action taking place in the center, on the floor or in the back. 
In the very front, however, the raised alter area, and the former pulpit and lectern areas to the sides provided a better view. 
The setting was appropriately shadowy and mysterious. Lights projected moody architectural images on the ceiling, lasers broke through an artificial fog creeping out of the sanctuary.  A cross draped in dark fabric dominated the central alter area, to good effect.  

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As one settled into one’s seat, the special effect lights pulsated in the gradually darkening space, and the rhythmic sound of deep breathing suggested that the building itself had come to life. Unfortunately, the fog machine went wild and the whole front of the church was shrouded in the noxious fumes of an artificial cloud. I assume this was intentional, but people waved their programs to clear the air, I whipped out a handkerchief. Two minutes of this would have amply suggested the requisite atmosphere, while five minutes was self-indulgent and eight minutes or more was cruel and unusual. It was a powerful effect, but also a  tip off of the excesses to follow.
The church had indeed come to life, but not in a good way. If the walls could talk they might have warned us to “Get Out Now!”, but alas no, like the dolts in a “B” horror movie, we sat as if paralyzed, awaiting our doom. 
This is not to say that the series of scenes to follow were not interesting to watch, but for the most part, they were visual candy, there was no connection between the events as the “procession” proceeded. To quote Gertrude Stein, “there was no there there.”   
The individual performances were very interesting and no doubt required great concentration, dexterity and stamina. Each performance, however, remained an individual strand, it came, it went, and there was no weave to make it a fabric. 
John “Giovanni” Joy’s High Priest was the first visual jolt. Most impressive, he looked not unlike a combination of Marcel Marceau and a member of the rock band KISS. He moved with remarkable deliberation as he mimed (appropriately enough) the opening sequence of the procession. He evoked a great ancient shaman quality. The illusion was soon shattered by the “kersplatt” of some meaty chunk which sailed down a guide-wire from the choir-loft and onto the spit of a sacrificial alter situated just behind my seat. The mystery meat was soon joined by a sacrificial piglet, (I think) which was lovingly carried up the aisle, carefully unwrapped from its swaddling by the High Priest and then violently impaled on the same pike. 
The High Priest, joined by the “Choir” then invoked an incantation, part Latin, part jibberish, which rose to an electronically enhanced crescendo.  
Well, every ceremony has to start somewhere, I suppose. 
Other actors cut formidable figures as well. Carmen Swans, the aforementioned Choir and Diane Gaidry, as The Preparer,  both moved with ethereal elegance. Ms.Gaidry, cool and airy, could transmit a twinge of tension with the mere rise of her eyebrow. Both actresses were enchanting.
Ms. Gaidry appeared later as a cleaning woman, operating a huge, dazzling vacuum cleaner. It was a very witty sight, but by then the audience had been stunned into such a stupor it was too unsure of itself to laugh out loud. A heavenly death ray of green laser light, however, did subsequently manage to shake out some giggles. 
John Toohill as the Young Man was also marvelous to observe. Beautifully menacing, he literally crept up the walls in a startling display of athleticism. 

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Perhaps the most effective moments came from Christopher Titus as the Krumpe
r. Mr. Titus ascended from nowhere to create a powerful, angular and violent dance, which, more than any other event, suggested the primal nature of spirituality. 
Also remarkable, Tim McPeek, as the Christ-like “Sacrificial Figure”,  demonstrated  a surreal and undoubtedly painful ability to contort his body into an agonizing fist of humanity. Unfortunately most of his long, tortured trail down the nave and up onto the alter to ascend the cross was lost to most of the audience, as his route on the dark floor was under the radar and as the other vignettes which hovered above held our attention. 
Other performances were less successful. The “Twins”, Danielle and Renee Herrman were meant to represent “Union”.  At least I think that was so. But the twins’ well executed choreography descended into a sort of Punch and Judy Show, with a glockenspiel soundtrack and a plastic bat. Clearly the young ladies cannot be held to account for that.  
A drum solo near the conclusion was just plain weird. Again, it was very well executed, but it seemed an afterthought, a “tack-on” which suggested: “Hey I know a good drummer who can do a set at the end.” If it had anything to do with anything, the connection was lost on me. 
Despite the valiant efforts of the actors, and their profound display of disciplined movement, the piece as a whole failed. The aesthetics did not match the athletics. 
While PROCESSION provided the usual visual banquet we have come to expect from Mr. Shanahan, the structure lacked cohesion, there was no through-story, or if there was one, like the jumble of a deep dream, it was only apparent to the dreamer. 
There was no way for others to connect to the work emotionally.  One observer remarked that with each new vision, he kept waiting for something to happen, for the story to go somewhere.  A hundred people could take away a hundred interpretations. That is fine for a painting by Dali, and it may be a hallmark of performance art, but a theatre piece requires a more communal experience, especially one which purports to explore the dimensions of human ritual and spirituality.
PROCESSION does not lack daring or visual interest, but without even a hint of a narrative it becomes banal, and quickly so. This emperor has no clothes.  One hopes that with his next endeavor, the talented Mr. Shanahan finds even a very modest story to tell. His work is well worth that effort. 
Procession – Written and Directed by Dan Shanahan. Dates and Location: September 15-16, 23-24, 30, October 1, 7-9  70 Military Road, Buffalo NY.  All performances at 8 p.m
Photos: Lukia Costello
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