The creators of Honey on Wallpaper, the fourth entry in the Globe’s Schumiatcher Sandbox series, say that their installation/performance piece is an exploration of memory and longing. I say it’s the kind of theatre we need to see more of in this city.
It doesn’t quite hit the mark to call Honey on Wallpaper a play. Part art installation, part dance performance, part game of Marco Polo, the piece veers off the standard narrative track and spends its 50 minute running time telling a story that seems familiar but constantly jumps away whenever we think we’ve got it figured out.
Co-creator Shaunna Dunn plays a character I came to think of as Figure no. 1, a woman in a decaying house who spends her time slowly peeling the wallpaper off in strips and letting the discarded strips accumulate on the floor. At first it seems like a gothic horror scenario, a performance about quiet and deliberate psychosis that initially reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic story The Yellow Wallpaper. After a few minutes, though, it’s clear that the play is aiming for something different; it seems to be a search for something, an exploration through measured, obsessive destruction. Dunn studies each shredded piece of paper and rips them further, as if the ripping apart were a kind of reading. She erases as she reads, but like all acts of erasure, it leaves a trace in the drifting mounds of scrap paper.
The solitary dynamic tips when another figure (dancer and co-creator Heather Cameron) appears, crawling along the walls like an outtake from a Jean Cocteau film. At that point something like a story emerges as the two figures begin to interact, sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes breaking apart. I wasn’t sure whether the figures were separate characters or simply aspects of one another – perhaps the second figure is part of the trace from the first figure’s destruction – but I loved seeing the two form a friendship of sorts through gesture, movement and play. And honey. Oh, and a string with a tin can tied to one end. All friendships go better with a string and a tin can.
Shaunna Dunn brings the greatest emotional heft to the play, with a constant mix of fear, curiosity and longing playing over her face. Her chief prop is a hurricane lantern capable of switching from a radiant to a directional light, which she uses to direct the audience’s attention and throw shadows over the walls. The effect lends an atmosphere of gothic horror to the first part of the performance, but the sense of eerieness is quickly abandoned for a more playful and ultimately thoughtful tone. Jeff Morton’s score goes a long way to controlling the emotional timbre of the piece, with most of the sound effects created on the spot, and Kate Selleck’s lighting design does an excellent job of focusing the audience’s attention and working in concert with Dunn’s lantern at crucial moments. At one point Dunn stares intently at a point behind the audience, and at that moment we realize with a jolt of pleasure that the set actually extends throughout the entire room.
As Figure no. 2, Cameron brings her experience as a dancer to bear on an extended dance performance midway through the play. It is a pleasure to watch. Cameron will be familiar to Regina audiences from Fadadance, where she has performed since 2005. Here she brings a fine sense of control to a piece that is at once fluid and staccato, suggesting a puppet alternately gaining and relinquishing control of its limbs.
Honey On Wallpaper opens tonight and runs to March 10th. You can check out the schedule and buy tickets online at the Globe’s web site.