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Word Play, Bodies, and Song: The Acme Corporation’s New “Found” Opera

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Sitting in the darkness of the theater, sound opens the show rather than light. A chorus of mouths suck and blow air as if gearing up for some great exercise. The breaths begin to coordinate, to synchronize their disparate parts like the engine of a train: pumping pistons, spinning gears, and steamy exhale valves. Once it gets going, this play moves with the speed of a locomotive, nonstop to the final destination.

The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem, The Acme Corporation’s newest production, opened on November 30 at The Voxel, the same venue as their last live production nearly five years ago. Since then, they produced a play via mail in 2020, but this “found opera” has been three years in the making.

 

A lot of labor—and a lot of words—have gone into this production; the script is a collage of found texts from sources that range from Thornton Wilder and Samuel Beckett to the warning label of a water heater and a bottle of body wash.

The list of source texts (over 60 of them) takes up over half a page in the program, but a literary seek-and-find doesn’t seem the aim. Rather, the divergent texts are arranged to speak to and build off of each other, ultimately flattening the hierarchy of high-brow and low-brow. Ursula K. Le Guin and the preschool teacher of one of the directors are given equal billing.

Word play is the vehicle that moves this show along. While there is a plot (there are indeed lights and there is indeed a problem), narrative takes a backseat to themes of communication, isolation, and the limits of language. The actors often speak their lines as though they are performing a soliloquy though they are not, in fact, alone. When another actor responds, the relationship between lines is often left for the audience to determine—which is a joy of any collaged medium.

Another joy of the play is the choreography of bodies and song. While not a musical or an opera in any traditional sense, the show is interested in what tones and scales can add to a sentence, how singing a line can change its delivered message. Intonation and harmony and discord highlight how easily a devastating sentence can be reframed as a joke. How a mechanical sentence can be reframed as a source of wonder.

 

The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem speaks to the many ways in which a group of people can be impacted by a single event. Lights, plural; Problem, singular. One bolt of lightning can send a neighborhood into darkness. Problem, as so often is the case, contains here a multitude of meanings. Definitions are multiple in Pierson’s text, like a dictionary with a litany of entries for each word. If meanings are malleable, is life a question of multiple choice? 

There is a line in the play that breaks down the etymology of the word metaphor: “From the Greek: “meta” meaning “over, across” and “pherein” meaning “to carry, bear.” A metaphor is something one can carry, something with (metaphoric) weight. Even though metaphors help us make meaning, help us to connect and communicate with one another across vast gaps among our individual experiences, there is a heaviness to the whole enterprise.

A metaphor—for COVID, for theft, for rape, for death, for any type of “outage” in which we lose our power—can be a hefty burden.

The optimism and sincerity of The Acme Corporation’s last three productions is admirable, especially when pessimism and sarcasm are the low-hanging fruit. They continue to insist that salvation can be found among community even as the world bombards the average person with headline after headline, sledgehammer after sledgehammer, problem after problem. The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem revels in the idea that transformation can be achieved through repetition. Characters scrub and polish and sweep. They make phone calls and type letters. They bathe. Like any exercise, repetition can feel grueling, but it’s also a reliable way to feel reinvigorated. Alive.

On the cover of the program for The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem, there is a diagram of a heart. But none of the letters labeling each part of the heart correlates to any key. If one does not know the anatomy, one can tell there are parts but not what these parts are or what they are called.

This seems a metaphor for the heart of this play: we know there are parts of us we all share in common, we know these parts are vital for our survival, and we know all the answers are inside of us—whether we can articulate them or not.

 

The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem: a found opera runs through December 17 at The Voxel. Showtimes and tickets are available online

Written by Lola B. Pierson (and many others), music by Allison Clendaniel, directed by Lola. B. Pierson and Jarod Hanson

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