By Holli Harms
The Institute of Memory (TIMe), part of the Under the Radar Series The Public Theater opens with a nod to Hamlet. The two guards crashing into one another in the night, each spooked, having just seen the apparition of Hamlet’s father, their once king. Calling Prince Hamlet to the scene, he sees the apparition of his father and asks, “What is it that you wish to tell me?” and thus with this the play begins.
In Hamlet, Hamlet is trying to find out how his father died. In The Institute of Memory, Lars Jan is trying to uncover how his father lived. It is a story of his father’s life from Polish Resistance to captivity by the Nazis (“You know the Nazis!”), to life as a spy for the U.S. and possibly counter spy for Poland. A life that takes such a toll on the individual that he lives in the shadows of fear and hate, and paranoia and anger, but in all of these shadows there is a son, Lars Jan, a boy totally conscious to his world, a young man out of a sense of guilt trying to understand his father’s life and his place in it. It is a compelling story aptly told by its two actors, Andrew Schneider and Sonny Valicenti.
Under the Radar is known for its mutli- tech performances blurring the lines between performance art and theatre. Often it works – high tech lighting and sound, microphones to distort the voice, and a set that has a life of its own – but here all the machinery; the lighting, the two man-controlled spot lights, the collage of images, all take away from the story of boy and father. Story telling is not effective we seem to be saying, unless we support it with technology.
The Institute of Memory was an institution in Poland created to spy on and keep the records of its citizens. Their phones taped, their every move watched. A place for spying and watching and listening. Lars with his play asks, “In 21st century America are we any different?” What does all this watching and note taking and categorizing of our every move do to us? Do we, like his father, eventually put our heads in the sand and do our best to simply exist?
My own mother grew up in Hitler’s Third Reich, so I know a little of what it is like to chase the monsters that chased your parent. To try to piece together a life where the pieces make no sense, follow no solid plan, no direct path or even indirect path. There is no path to follow. So the story of Lars Jan’s search for his father’s life intrigued me from the get go, but it could have done more than intrigue, more with less staging, less “smoke and mirror” enhancements. I know I was not alone with my desire for “more from less” by the response of the audience. An appreciative applause, but not the roaring thunder it could have been.
So what is it that the father’s ghosts wishes to tell the boy? That the boy now a man wishes to tell us? That his father lived a life? That he was here? As an aside near the end of the play, the character of “the son” tells us that maybe there really isn’t any specific answer, just cobbled together reasoning to slightly appease our emptiness.
The show runs at the Public through January 17th. Performances vary so you will need to go to the Public website http://publictheater.org/en/Programs–Events/Under-the-Radar-Festival/ to find dates and times.
And get there early, at least 15 minutes before curtain, as it is General Admission and it fills up fast. Really fast.
The Institute of Memory (TIMe), Writing, Direction, and Stage Design by Lars Jan part of the Under the Radar Festival The Public Theater, Friday, January 8 – Sunday, January 17, The Public: Martinson Hall, Ticket Price: $25
Running time: 80 minutes, Created by Early Morning Opera, Produced with Los Angeles Performance Practice and CalArts Center for New Performance, Performance: Andrew Schneider and Sonny Valicenti
Composition & Vocal Performance: Mariana Sadovska, Dramaturgy & Translation: Anna Burzynska, Video Design, Interactive Software and Systems Integration: Pablo N. Molina, Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl, Sound Design: Nathan Ruyle and Mikaal Sulaiman, Interactive Typewriter: Andrew Schneider, Technical Director: Joshua Friedensohn, 3D Animations and Additional Video Content: Ting Zhang, Associate Lighting Designer: Chu-Hsuan Chang, Production Manager: Sarah Peterson
Producer: Miranda Wright