Ascending the stairs at the Flea then descending the stairs into Arden – But, Not Without You, one is immediately immersed in the sound of mesmerizing vocals emitting from Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born, standing in the far corner, weaving their tones together with plucked notes from a bass. From the ceiling corners of the black box theater are hung carefully lit branches on which a triangle of pictures are placed between reflective disks. A great chalk square has been drawn around the space, and a bass, guitar and drums stand in repose, ready to come to life. The tempo of song and music slowly accelerates until the hour approaches and the performance begins.
Okpokwasili and Born transition to a haunting, socially political song “Do Not Let Go,” sung in beautifully lyrical counterpoint as their words are projected onto a huge wood-framed screen on the wall, a screen where words and other projections courtesy of Hao Bai, projection designer are presented at relevant moments during the evening.
Niegel Smith and Jack Fuller eventually emerge onto this beautiful set, which is presumably created by Born, who is credited as environment designer in addition to performer. Smith and Fuller slowly and ceremoniously walk backwards along the chalk lines until they’ve circled the entire room. If you think Robert De Niro‘s variations on “You talkin’ to me?” from the iconic 1976 film Taxi Driver are impressive, trying listening to the myriad of ways Smith says the first line of this scene, “This place is fraught,” during this trip around the square room.
There is an element of absurdity to the words spoken during this scene and throughout the production, poetic absurdity, and the slow, methodical, mysterious delivery of such sets the tone for the entire evening. It becomes quickly clear that there will be no traditional scenes, characterizations, or story arcs in Arden – But, Not Without You; it is in fact, as described, “a ritual.”
Others eventually take the stage, and the evening’s proceedings segue into an invitation for the audience to join the performers in a “Bed of Song”, followed by a personal narration of “A Father’s Story” by Carrie Mae Weems, a “Woods/Dance Trance” with the compelling and completely watchable Smith and company, and a passionate and urgent song “Try” sung by the entire company.
The evening reaches a fever pitch as Diana Oh, billed as performer as well as composer and co-music director, takes the stage as an indescribable force of energy and song, calling out to the rafters with her voice, at times seemingly possessed; each of the musicians round out the performance piece in what seems like a concert playoff: Jack Fuller heating up the keys with his mournful, soul-filled voice, Viva Deconcini quaking with her white guitar, Serena Ebony Miller sawing her Bass/Cello in half, and someone’s far out grandmother named Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks tearing up the drums.
At one point Oh extemporized during the song by engaging with the audience, calling out one seemingly bashful attendee who eventually danced a few sultry circles around the room to a round of applause before being led back to her seat. She commented on my companion’s bike helmet which glowed fluorescent from the stage lights. She then called out this next, caught red-handed holding a tablet and pen. “You bettah right something gooooood! We tryna get a grant here! It’s all on you!” Oh chastised. I raised my hand, “Preach!” and everyone enjoyed this good-natured ribbing. Lastly, a woman was called out to sit in the center of the stage to express her dreams, which were ceremoniously encouraged by the cast as they spun her around in her chair and chanted their encouragement.
There’s no plot going on in Arden – But, Not Without You; no beginning, middle or end, no song and dance breaks in regular intervals. There is, however, an emotional, musical, lyrical, and spiritual trajectory that shapes this piece into a spectacular upheaval, and when it was all over the evening defied categorization; did we just witness a narrative poetry jam, a rock concert, a modern dance, or a revival? Who knows, and who cares. If all that co-directors Smith and Nie Witherspoon had told the cast was “just do your thing and do it like your life depended on it,” that was certainly enough to bring these talents to the fever pitch that eventually exploded out into this indescribable experience.
If you’re looking for an evening of traditional theater, Arden – But, Not Without You isn’t for you. But if you’re open to an experience you won’t soon forget, then come down for this Flea for all.
Arden – But, Not Without You (through March 6, 2022)
The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, NYC. For tickets visit https://theflea.org/shows/arden/
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission