“Soror Mystica” review: breaking the frame

ParaTheatrical ReSearch's ritualistic production is and isn't a performance

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

My invite says “please arrive no later than 7:45” for this 8 pm performance, but when I walk into the intimate little performance space at 7:44 they’ve already started. Five dancers—four in all white (The Chaos Sisters, embodied by Memorie Eden, Maple Holmes, Lindsay Reich, and Faye Dylan) and one in fuligin with matching mask (Aether, incarnated by Bryan Smith)—sprawl around the floor, stretching their bodies, doing breathing exercises, probably meditating and visualizing red triangles and whatnot. I remember seeing Grotowski’s indelible name in connection with Antero Alli, perpetrator of tonight’s performance, and my mind goes to Artaud and Brecht. I realize that I’ve been played. When does the show start? Hey man, it never ended. I’ll bet they started warming up on the dance floor before they even opened the doors. We join our story already in progress.

“Soror Mystica” runs through Sunday night in Portland. Photo: A. Alli.

I take a seat, then another. My boots squeak, the floor creaks, I feel terrible for interrupting the performance. Oops, there goes that pesky frame. What performance? They’re just warming up. A static image of some kind of medieval amphitheater enlivens the screen behind the dancers, bracketed by bare branches hanging over candles on columns at the edge of the dance floor. Music that sounds more or less like Hildegard’s plays over the speakers. People trickle in. They keep silent. They prepare themselves physically and spiritually— as I have—for the Work, which is about to commence.

I first encountered the name “Antero Alli” in connection with Robert Anton Wilson’s Maybe Logic Academy, probably about ten years ago. We Discordians tend to stick apart, so imagine my surprise last week when, while doing my intermission stretches around PSU’s Lincoln Hall during the Portland Ballet’s annual holiday collaboration with PSU Orchestra, I saw his name on a poster announcing a show the following week. ParaTheatrical ReSearch, it said. Soror Mystica: Ritual Invocation of the Anima, it said. Poetry by H.D., it said. Evidently the local Earth Coincidence Control Office is working overtime this holiday season. Turns out Alli moved to Portland two years ago after long stints in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, and has been staging all manner of magickal happenings, such as this Bukowski Bardo (recently reviewed by ArtsWatch’s Mitch Ritter).

A bell rings out from the back of the room, its rich tone brought forth by a semi-hidden percussionist crouching serenely back by the sound board, and the quintet of dancers changes the routine, getting more active and changing directions and the flow of their movements and breathing exercises. This happens four or five times, and eventually the show starts. The last guests arrive, talking rather loudly, unsure of what they’re getting into. They stagger down the dark hallway defined by the stage’s curtained edge, and when I see the fella’s big fakey fake beard I realize I’ve been had again. Damn that frame. Damn it to Hell.

Fakey Beard Fella (The Alchemist, L.D. McClure) and his Guide, a Dark Woman straight out of Shakespeare (The Sorceress, Greeta Ahart), proceed to the center of the stage, where they exchange a series of alchemical keywords — ”Earth,” “Putrefaction,” “Energy,” “Transubstantiation” — as if they’re having a normal, expressive conversation. It reminds me a lot of this scene from Soderbergh’s madcap cyber ritual Schizopolis. When the alchemist and the witch seat themselves at the table off to the edge of the stage and begin to watch the same show I am—while still being part of it—I realize that “ritual” means going both below and above the normal realm of mesocosmic narrative.

Conventional theater (and movies, novels, etcetera) is concerned with relatable things like real-world characters, dialogue, plot, and so on. Ritualistic narrative, by contrast, concerns itself with little repeated details like the keyword exchange (repeated throughout the remainder of the performance) and large-scale formal elements outlining the procedures of the rite. Microcosm and macrocosm. Consider the grand symbolisms and millions of little jokes that characterize a movie like, say, Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.

In this case the large-scale form follows the transmutation of the alchemist through the (inter)action of the four elements—each endowed with their own agency, each enacting their own rituals, not subservient to the alchemist but welcoming him into their temple—and the masked shadow man who dwells at the threshold and drives the querent’s transfiguration. All this further fractures the frame, because we see these people both as actors (that fake fucking beard!) enacting a rite and as the incorporeal substances and energies which they are, for the next hour or so, embodying.

The miraculous thing about all of this is the performers are openly working for their own benefit. Alli’s own ParaTheatrical ReSearch Mission Statement reads, in part: “This work provides performers a safe space to expose and correct whatever habits may be crimping their talents to non-performers seeking greater access to creative states embodied in presence, movement, and vocalization.” This is not a performance, except that it absolutely is.

With me so far? One last layer: while Sylvi Alli and Amma Li Grace make spare, percussive music from the back, Nita Bryant’s disembodied voice (The Oracle) reads poetry. Not something overtly alchemical, and not something hip and chaos magicky like I might have otherwise expected from Alli, but poetry by one of my favorite Pennsylvanian expatriates, H.D. aka Hilda Doolittle. The lines all come from “The Walls Do Not Fall,” the first part of H.D.’s majestic Trilogy, composed in London while she wrote against the Blitz in the apartment she shared with her lover Bryher. The mark of war is there, sure, but more important is the defiant transmutation of violence that marks the true spiritual work.

The Oracle intones:

be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving,

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

selfless,

that pearl-of-great-price.

And:

Let us, however, recover the Sceptre,
the rod of power:

it is crowned with the lily-head
or the lily-bud:

it is Caduceus; among the dying
it bears healing:

or evoking the dead,
it brings life to the living.

More, I am forbidden say. I can reveal that everyone there seemed moved and a bit confused, as if the story’s deepest meanings had slipped in past everyone’s conscious monitors and performed some manner of psychic cleansing.

Memorie Eden, Faye Dylan, Maple Holmes and Lindsay Reich in Paratheatrical Research’s ‘Soror Mystica.’ Photo: A. Alli.

My own feelings were somewhere between the endorphin high of a good long walk and the theta waves that characterize float tank experiences. I did hear a lot of nervous, uncertain, satisfied, relieved, good-natured chuckles mixed through the final applause, and throughout the performance a woman in front of me couldn’t stop giggling. It was, indeed, a bit of absurd low-budget, public access local theater, and although I was enjoying the Hell out of it all, I could certainly see how a more conventional theatergoer might feel a little like The Dude watching His landlord’s dance cycle. But the laughter—its effect on me and the rest of the audience, and its non-effect on the performers—reminded me of Crowley’s justification for the term “Holy Guardian Angel” (id est, so that no one could possibly take it literally or seriously) and I realized that, intentionally or not, this theater companion was another Breaker of the Frame.

You, dear reader, have one last chance to experience this wonder for yourselves: at 8 p.m. sharp, tonight, Sunday December 3. Good luck, and Godspeed.

ParaTheatrical ReSearch‘s Soror Mystica: Ritual Invocation of the Anima runs December 1-3 at 8 p.m. sharp, $10 at the door of Performance Works NW.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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