Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
January 9, 2009
Holcombe Waller is a singer-songwriter-performance artist from Portland, Oregon, who studied video installation at Yale and has performed extensively in San Francisco and across America. He has a beautiful willowy four-octave voice, seductive and vulnerable at the same time, enticing audiences into his unique world of songs, images, and stories—a personal universe of details from everyday life, incisions in emotional storms, and portrayals of an inner landscape that combines dark depressive yet passionate thoughts with the candor and charisma of genuine human warmth.
His latest show, Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest, interweaves his original neo-folk songs, monologues, and autobiographical stories, while lush video projections provide an interesting dialogue image-soundscape. Moreover, this interdisciplinary performance has a scenic designer, Erik Flatmo, who has ingeniously provided—probably at the suggestion of the writer-director Waller—an eclectic set that brings together storage and sport utility boxes of various sizes, oriental pillows, Hindu and Buddhist symbols, and antique furniture.
Add to that the slow movement of the bodies of the protagonist and his acoustic ensemble, The Healers and you have a wonderful evening at the theatre, as part of Under the Radar Festival, a vivid artistic event that allows New Yorkers to attend an impressive range of imaginative multi-media performances.
Between songs, Waller casually speaks to the audience, sharing little delicious stories. We got to find out, for instance, that he has a Jewish-French father and his family lived in Portland on Christmas Tree Lane, beautifully ornated for the holidays every year. The only fear of his mom was that Baby Jesus would be kidnapped again from the front of their house. It seems that Baby Jesus had the "bad" habit to disappear and reappear again, while Virgin Mary would be lost forever and a new one had to be bought each year.
Another story Holcombe shares is about an old hooker with bright orange lipstick that a friend took in his car on his way to Weed (the town). The woman reminded him of his grandma and made him think of God, so he offered to take her for dinner wherever she wanted. She was happy to fulfill her dream and eat for free at...Taco Bell.
Waller's stories, like his songs, induce a melancholic atmosphere of seraphic beauty rimmed with a touch of spleen and spiced with ironic passion and joie de vivre. Two of his songs are actually in French, a la Jacques Brel, and Holcombe performs them like a romantic hero standing on storage boxes. It's a tender self-mockery in all that as it is in many of the juxtapositions of words, movement, and image. In any case, the video installations are truly beautiful, the camera moving slowly in rooms and outdoors, like a hidden eye that takes us, voyeuristically, in a person's thoughts and intimate environment.
The "hope chest" of future domestic bliss takes the proportions of a mythical archetype of unfulfilled hopes and desires crammed in a corner of the heart/brain—Flaubert's Madame Bovary reconfigured for suburban America. However, the result is a very fulfilling show, which—for all its exploration of the "dark unknown"—leaves us with a sweet feeling of a bearable lightness of being.