Rensselaer County

Review: Discover hope admid chaos in ‘Where There’s Smoke’

Pictured, left to right, Raya Malcolm, Shannon Rafferty, Angelique Powell.

Pictured, left to right, Raya Malcolm, Shannon Rafferty, Angelique Powell.

TROY — At the end of Tony Pallone’s excellent Times Union preview about Troy Foundry Theatre’s current production, “Where There’s Smoke: Ilium Burns,” the company’s artistic director, David Girard, says, “We’re finding the poetry in the chaos.”

Girard is talking about the way the new script came together—from scratch, organically, collaboratively—as well as how the play’s characters discover hope in the face of various kinds of disasters, like fire, war, and social upheaval. But this line is also a blueprint for your experience of this show.
My husband, Mark, said on the ride home, “At first I was annoyed, but then I said I’m here and I need to figure this out.” Exactly. And we did. And it was thought-provoking and highly theatrical.

To start with, your arrival: Predictably a young man takes your ticket at the box office, but then–what next? No stage. No rows of chairs. You wander around the shabby remains of an old hotel, remains subtly dressed by scenic designer Richard Lovrich. You go to the bar and fortify yourself with wine or beer. You stand around, masked, and observe everyone else who enters, most of them young and not quite so nonplussed by the confusion as you (if you are as old as we are). But you remain quiet, taking your cue to move about with the crowd. The words “immersive experience” come to mind.
A violinist (Connor Armbruster) begins playing and strolling, and the audience moves into a larger space; soon other actors in dress of various historical periods, courtesy of Shae Fitzgerald, occupy four smaller spaces and start performing, all talking at the same time, each telling whoever is watching at the moment about a calamity. There’s a photographer (Emily Curro), whose career has focused on taking pictures of disasters, like Hiroshima. Angelique Powell is an African American Trojan at the time of the great fire of 1862, which leveled over 600 buildings. Shayne David Cameris plays an RPI physics professor who tries, loudly and passionately, to explain notions like “entropy,” the state of collapse, while always being optimistic.

You watch a grieving mother (Shannon Rafferty) recreate the horrible moments of a fire in the 1890s that claimed the lives of her family. Iniabasi Nelson plays a black activist in Troy around 1970; Raya Malcolm’s Ivy Mae Warner is a contemporary street activist; and William David Caste (Matt Malone) is a storytelling barkeep.

You suddenly realize that the whole thing is a fugue, whose main melody is the human voice in an agitated state, a melody repeated in these lengthy monologues, simultaneously, begun at different times, but–like a fugue–making thrilling sense, stretching your ability to hear more, to make connections.

You admire Ethan Botwick’s stunning choreography–balletic, reinforcing, surprising–that complements the narrative direction by Chloe Bliss Snyder. The tech work by Willie David Short V and Travis Wright underscores the mood of each scene.

You will never take it all in. You’re probably not meant to. This is the way the world works–always has. You are living your own life, tinged with catastrophe and joy, loss and discovery, while everywhere else someone is living hers. You don’t know everyone’s story, but when you are privileged to hear even a snatch of it, you understand and sympathize.

When we left the theater, our heads buzzing, we passed a business called Tech Valley Center of Gravity, a Manufacturing Incubator. Entropy, gravity: dissolution, grounding–all on the same block.

Bravo, TFT!

WHERE: Trojan Hotel, 41 3rd St., Troy
WHEN: Through Oct. 16
HOW MUCH: $22-$15

Categories: Entertainment

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