The company seems dedicated to creating performances that are intimate and immediate, and the staging at the Chapel ensured that the audience is close to, almost a part of, the show.
The nearness can be uncomfortable at times. Not because a dancer or actor is close enough to touch you but because you, as an audience member, have given your power over to the actors and dancers. There is nowhere to hide, no way to not pay attention, and the audience becomes a part of the tense energy that drives the show.
The Leverage Dance Theater's "Sketch," choreographed by Hannah Fischer, opens the performance. It is a fluid, graceful dance in which the sound of breathing and changing light cues provide the rhythm. There is no music only, after the first few minutes, an occasional spoken word. At times, because they have moved in the dark, the dancers (Hannah Fischer, Elodie Andrews) appear more like statues, posing at great distance or twisted around each other. At other times, they move together, lifting or turning away from the other in concert.
Watching them move, it is difficult to tell if the dance is a struggle or an exploration, and at first, the dancers' faces are controlled, emotionless. They soften as they move together more, and begin to show glimpses of expression and connection. You can feel a tension, and a sense of story, within the dance, as If the dancers were themselves uncertain.
After the dance, the audience moves to the stage area for the presentation of "Nine," directed by Kelly Weber. The time and place are unknown, but the location is clearly some sort of prison or holding cell. Two women, shackled to steel posts, each on a small platform, share the stage. The character known as 1 (Rachel Tibbetts) is seated, desperately trying to get character 2 (Ellie Schwetye) to sit up and talk to her, or at least to show her face.
It is clear the women are being held and tortured, it is never specified why. Tibbetts' 1 is persistent and polite, a little purposefully loud in a way that hints at desperation, while Schwetye's 2 is more abrasive and direct, determined not to give in even as she slowly comes around. As the two women talk, they question whether they can trust each other, they debate the value of their identity and challenge each other, attempting to find a reason to withstand their torture and live.
Through questions and challenges, the women keep their minds occupied and reassure each other that they still exist. They never mention why they have been taken, or from where, or who the captors are, but it is not necessary. Both Tibbetts and Schwetye do an excellent job of conveying the emotional story through their voices, expressions and reactions. Schwetye's internal physical discomfort is painful to watch and the conviction in Tibbetts story of being saved by a moonbeam is heartbreaking.
Though they know little about each other, it is clear the two women have formed a bond of necessity. The conversation is interrupted by loud banging noises and 1 is taken away and tortured. She returns in visibly worse shape and, although there is some makeup to suggest the damage, it is primarily through Tibbetts' acting that we understand the brutality of her treatment.
Schwetye's 2 is more gentle, but no less persistent, in questioning 1 after she is returned to their cell. But her shift to the gentle tone draws focus to the severity of the abuse 1 has taken. There is a tenderness to the second half of the play that belies the pain and suffering the characters experience. The play slows to a whispered ending that comes not so much as a relief, but a much needed release.
The acting in "Nine" is raw and powerful, and the show doesn't offer any judgment or moral about war, torture, imprisonment or the like. Having seen the show, however, I can't stop thinking about it from my perspective, as a part of today's global picture. I am moved deeply to consider the very real physical and psychological effects of trauma and torture. I wonder why there are so many places in the world where incarceration, bondage and slavery are so casually practiced and torture so easily ignored.
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble and Leverage Dance Theatre have not shied away from a controversial subject; neither do they appear to be making a political statement. They are, however, presenting bold theater that challenges an audience and artfully broaching subjects that are painful and disconcerting to consider. If you are interested in provocative theater that touches on global and political themes, this is a production sure to spark conversation.
"Nine" and "Sketch" runs through August 31, 2013 at the Chapel Sanctuary for the Arts. To make your reservation or for more information, visit www.slightlyoff.org.