nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 15, 2006
One of the most rewarding things about my job is seeing new and emerging artists grow and mature; maturity, we discover, brings perspective, and perspective is right at the center of Peter S. Petralia's new theatre piece Invisible Messages—it is indeed the element that marks this play as a turning point in this visionary artist's career.
Three stories unfold in Invisible Messages, which is as much about how to tell and assimilate tales as it is about its three characters' specific trajectories. Mandy, a young woman who has only recently learned that she was world-famous 20 years ago when, as a baby, she fell down a well, is on an odyssey to meet the nearly two dozen generous strangers who donated body parts and organs that saved her life. Meredith, somewhat older, has just had brain surgery that enables her to experience emotions for the first time in her life; she is now on a voyage to key locales from her past, where she will re-live—and this time actually feel—some of the important moments that have brought her to this point.
Alessandro, about 30, is on another kind of journey. For reasons only hinted at, he has decided that he wants to become completely invisible, to disappear from his own life. He's mapped out a strategy to erase the man he was, turn into someone else, and then evaporate into a far-off corner of the Earth (his chosen destination is the remote Gobi Desert in Mongolia).
Any of these stories on its own would be enough to sustain a riveting theatrical narrative; together, playfully intertwined narratively (the way that Petralia brings his three protagonists together is delightful, and I won't spoil it by revealing it here) and structurally (the actors, who have the same names as the characters they portray, break the fourth wall all the time and take part in one another's "dramas") they create a compelling and contemplative meditation on perception and perspective—the invisible messages that we constantly send out to the world about ourselves as we "perform" our lives. What do we impose on our own existences, and what do we impose on those of others?
Emphasizing this detachment/disconnect between what "really" happened and what we "say" happened—note that this is the shared component of the three narratives here—is an inventive staging by Petralia that constantly forces us as audience members to shift our own perspectives on what we're experiencing. Sometimes the stories are related straightforwardly in monologues; sometimes they're acted out (on the show's remarkable backdrop, which features two planes intersecting at the rear of the performing space, creating what looks like an aerial view for this "remembered" action); sometimes they're styled as faux lectures; sometimes they're narrated live and simultaneously on video. There are near-continuous projections that sometimes set the scene and sometimes set the mood (and sometimes do neither), and there's a stunning soundscape created by frequent Petralia collaborator Max Giteck Duykers that's sometimes purely emotional and other times serves as aural commentary. It's a bombardment of imagery that never turns into overload; it makes Invisible Messages a happening rather than a mere play, with each audience member at the center of a set of sensory experiences that will ultimately be received and processed in as many different ways as there are people in the room.
Invisible Messages is not perfect; it suffers from the budgetary constraints of off-off-Broadway theatre, which means that the actors (at the early preview reviewed) are not as fully comfortable in their roles as they might be, that the production values are modest, and that the venue is not an ideal fit for Petralia's vision (in particular, the room never gets as dark as it needs to for the projections, designed by Petralia and Alison Grippo, to be properly seen). But if you've been watching Petralia's work grow and mature, as I have, from his early innovations with form and structure in Bunny's Last Night in Limbo and Cheap Thrills through his more recent experiments with narrative and technology in About Silence and Third Person, then it's easy to overlook the flaws here and focus on the exciting directions that this remarkable artist is taking in his work.
And it's just possible that if you allow yourself to get lost in the sometimes unfamiliar worlds that Petralia creates in Invisible Messages that the powerful eponymous communications buried in this piece will assert themselves, differently for you than for me, and remind you of something vital and fundamental about the human condition.