by Loren Noveck · December 6, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #29: Loren Noveck comments on Struck at HERE
Given its serious and sometimes ominous subject matter—stroke, brain damage, and neuroplasticity; the loss of self we fear with changes to our brain; fear of death and permanent damage—the fact that Struck is shot through with joyousness, with a sense of not just wonder but whimsy, feels like a constant and pleasant surprise. On the one hand, the piece is steeped in the precise medical details of the cerebrovascular event suffered by its central character, Catherine (played by one of the piece’s creators, Tannis Kowalchuk, who herself experienced such a stroke in 2011); on the other, it’s a wild fantasia taking in elements of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Norse fairy tales, a half-imagined Iceland, and cherished childhood memories.
Through its constantly shifting perspectives and styles—from the mundane and realistic minutiae to the most gossamer and elliptical of metaphors—the piece gives a strangely beautiful subjective experience of living inside an altered brain, in both its daily travails and its sheer incomprehensible weirdness. We see, on the literal side, Catherine’s inability to button her coat with only one fully functioning hand; her fixation on her neurologist’s expensive Italian shoes when she can’t quite process the medical details she’s being given; her insistence that nothing is really wrong mixed with sheer terror that something quite seriously is. But we also see her paired with a strange hybrid of angel and orderly (Brett Keyser, who also plays Catherine’s husband and her Icelandic grandfather), who persists in speaking to her in Icelandic or German—languages not completely unfamiliar to her (she spoke Icelandic with her grandparents) but not fully comprehensible, either: like the sudden inability to process one’s own language. We see her journeying to an Iceland of myth and memory; dancing ecstatically under the Northern Lights.
Visually, too, it works through suffusing the space and the senses, with elaborate projections and videos (by Brian Caiazza and Tina Spangler), coming from all directions and projected on a variety of surfaces from panels to floor to scrim. I found the projections especially effective when on scrim between audience and performers, adding a layer of ambiguity and complexity—an obstacle—that made it just that little bit harder to see and hear: made the audience’s experience just that little bit more analogous to Catherine’s.
Created collaboratively (by Kowalchuk, director Ker Wells, and neuroscientist Allison Waters, with the additional participation of playwright/dramaturg Kristen Kosmas), this is a play where the collaborative seams show, and that makes structural sense, too. The piece’s stylistic and structural poles are embodied as well in the styles of the two performers. Even in her most ecstatic and hallucinatory mode, Kowalchuk has a steadiness about her, an emotional groundedness that makes everything she does feel measured and thoughtful. And even in his most realistic scenes—as Catherine’s husband, Gary, or her Icelandic grandfather, or a hospital orderly, albeit one with snowshoe angel’s wings—there’s an anarchic, magnetic strangeness to Keyser. He seems like a creature not entirely of this earth.
I can’t really put the narrative logic of Struck into words, or even really say I understood everything in it. It’s bristly and nonlinear and some of it works intuitively in context, but will sound absolutely insane if I try to describe it (like an ecstatic dance sequence punctuated by video and scored to a disco remix of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”—which really does make thematic sense if you listen to the lyrics, but the tonal shift of it is hard to explain in any literal way). But that’s how, and why, it works, at least most of the time (the balance between the literal and the fantastical sometimes seems a little skewed toward the fantastical). It’s giving you a glimpse into what it must feel like to experience that kind of jolt to the system, and its terrible ambiguity: It is a trap or a blessing to be suddenly awash in visceral memory? Are visions/hallucinations delightfully magical, or haunting and terrifying? Is the “normal” brain something that has been transcended, or something that one desperately wants to return to?