TBA: Half Straddle’s Ghost Rings

In Ghost Rings, which opened Wednesday evening in the TBA Festival and repeats Thursday, Sept. 14, in Lincoln Performance Hall, Tina Satter, Erin Markey, Jo Lampert, and Chris Giarmo of the Obie-winning Brooklyn troupe Half Straddle take the stage clad in sparkles, lamé, Spandex, and the bright synthetic fabric of ’80s hair bands and pop stars. The lights and rigging are generous and close-in, giving it the feel of a life-size diorama of a rock show.

Artistic director Satter makes two announcements as the music and the show start revving up:

  • First, she’s been making plays about her sister for eight years.
  • Second, Ghost Rings are a candy that she made up a really long time ago, in “2009, do the math.”

We’re left to imagine what they might be until a later reference to light, sugary, purple candy rings brings their image into focus. They’re the namesake of the show, and an artifact of the glittery, mythical world built by Satter and her characters through epic rock ballads and conversations with “internal spirit beings,” but they’re never shown to the audience. We’re told that they exist, and brought into a world where they are obviously real things, and our imaginations are insistently tugged along, like a child leading us by the hand to a fort they’ve built.

The show never waits for us to catch up. The defiantly self-important, improvisational world-spinning of co-imagining children is somehow perfectly fit into the mythos of rock and roll and presented in the format of contemporary performance art. By the time Markey and Lampert announce their characters, Stephanie and Shawna, it’s clear that the dreamy world where they live, which includes places like the Haunted Canoe, is vast and private and full of wonders and perils.

Half Straddle’s “Ghost Rings.” Photo courtesy PICA

At one point, Satter tells us that as children, when she and her sister imagined themselves as adults, they imagined living in neighboring, corner apartments, raising their children together. Their children would be best friends. Husbands were not involved. Like the Ghost Rings, the rest of what she gradually tells us about her sister does’t give us a description of her presence, or their relationship. Rather it just declares things about her, placing her at the center of this world that’s being built on stage, but proving her deep absence as well. Her presence in absentia cuts through the many shifting layers of mythology and private language.

The show careens through monologues by Satter, skits between Shawna and Stephanie, and full-on rock numbers. All the performers are tremendously talented, and they have real chemistry as a band. Markey’s powerful voice and elastic expressions range from goofy to deeply sincere. Lampert’s more sultry crooning is an excellent companion to Markey’s falsetto. Giarmo mostly supports on keyboards, but seems to be having a great time and definitely holds his own the couple of times he takes center stage. While certainly a full member of the band, Satter holds herself apart by being able to speak as herself, out of character. She’s an excellent singer and performer like the rest of them, but her admittedly amateurish drums put the sound a little closer in tone to the childhood band she and her sister played in. They had two songs. One was about cats. They played pieces of wood instead of instruments.

Stephanie and Shawna’s relationship is the center of gravity for the semi-fantastic world they inhabit. They each have an Internal Spirit Being. Stephanie has Sealy, a seal puppet that looks both bashful and very haughty, and Shawna has Deer, a glittery deer made of transparent plastic. Deer can move her head, and flick her tail, while Sealy’s most expressive gesture is to sink his head further down into his neck, like hiding in a turtleneck. Amid the adventuring and singing, a conflict emerges when Shawna explains that she’s having a baby, and she “set an intention” so it will be Stephanie’s baby. “This is a really big deal.” Stephanie replies to each announcement, as the lights go down, with a simple “What?” Each subsequent “what” gets much funnier and heavier with meaning than the last.

A deep rift grows between Stephanie and Shawna, though they still inhabit their private world together. Sealy and Deer just make things worse, giving voice to their companions’ internal critics. At the same time, we learn more about Satter’s sister. Snippets of interactions paint a picture of an erratic person who is probably not doing very well. The story of how her sister showed up for a rehearsal of one of Satter’s pieces just to use the wifi and slowly realized that the show was about her was a moment that solidified the pained sense of how they were still close yet divided by a terrible distance. The most affecting vignette of their complex orbit was Satter’s story of returning to the library in her hometown. She found the couch where her sister often slept and curled up in the “imprint of her sister’s life.” The librarian woke her by calling her sister’s name; yet another time they were confused for each other.

After a lot of literal song and dance, Shawna and Stephanie repeat their conversation about Shawna’s impending baby (played by a stuffed panda). Stephanie replies with honesty, and understanding, and encouragement this time. From behind the drums, Satter watched this conversation intently. It became clear that Stephanie’s big crime was not playing along, not saying “yes” to her best friend’s fantasy, while still expecting to live in their shared fantasy world.

The mixed, shifting layers of myth and format gave the show a charm and a depth beyond what just a rock show, a play, or a spoken word performance could achieve. Some things you can’t just say out loud. Some things you have to say through an internal spirit being, or through a rock song.

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