REVIEW: THE PHOTO ALBUM

Logo (design Lisa Reinke)

Ever stumble across an old photo that you don’t recognize and wonder where it came from?  Who might have taken it?  What their story could have been?

Admit it:  we’re all of us guilty of a little voyeuristic curiosity.  Whether your sneaky instincts are fueled by a need for juicy gossip or anthropology, the Story Gym puts them to work in The Photo Album, a nifty mobile-device-powered scavenger hunt being presented at the Brick as part of this year’s Game Play Festival.  If the Festival’s mission is to bridge the gap between performance and interactive media, The Photo Album realizes that goal quite admirably, while illuminating an experience common to video games.

The Photo Album Table

The setup is simple: several friendly folks in white coats present you with a table of photographs, allegedly unearthed during a recent renovation project, and ask you to scan them with your smartphones using the Layar app.  Each photo gives you instructions via your phone, like “Find the person wearing the camo-print scarf and ask him to tell you a joke.”  Meanwhile, performers are milling around the theater in various places, waiting for audience members to approach them with the right cues.  Each performer has a repertoire of stories to tell corresponding to several pictures on the table.  The practical offshoot is a collection of non-chronological monologues based in and around a particular building in Brooklyn – and a lot of downtime in between.  Each tale is spoken directly to the person who asks, and hearing it earns the listener a sticker on their “Memory Passport.”  The audience member with the most stickers at the end of the show wins a prize.

An example photo from The Photo Album.
An example photo from The Photo Album.

But it’s not really the stickers or prizes we are after, it’s the stories.  Each anecdote enriches the overall portrait of lives being lived in the city, but I was refreshed to learn that there was no overarching mystery to figure out.  There is no cold case riddle to be solved, no precious old bauble to be retrieved; only a couple of stories from college roommates, families, and lovers.  “Have you ever lied to your wife?” we are made to ask the dapper George (Frank Paiva).  The answer is, of course, yes, but we do not expect to be as moved by his story of mice and shoes as we are.

Ann (Donna Ross) and daughter Alisa (Anna Paratore) play Cat’s Cradle in The Photo Album.
Ann (Donna Ross) and daughter Alisa (Anna Paratore) play Cat’s Cradle in The Photo Album.

“Are you getting to know everybody?” Donna Ross asks.  She plays Ann, an affable matriarch/scientist who works with mice in a lab and will teach you to play Cat’s Cradle if you want.  Ross plays the wife in question, George’s wife, and she is certainly the most natural and inviting of all the performers in this tricky four-dimensional arena.  At times I tried to converse back to the performers to see if they would improvise.  More than often they just went along with the script.  Not Ann.  When she asked me what I wanted to eat at her birthday party, I asked for crawfish.  Her reaction was genuinely surprised, but intrigued.  “Crawfish,” she said, “Okay.  We’ll see what we can do.”   Kyung Sik Won also charms as Steve, a college student who thinks you are his roommate Thaddeus; Laura Merrill is likewise endearing as a sweet-natured but sharp fortune teller.

An example photo from The Photo Album
An example photo from The Photo Album

While there are connections between each of these characters, sometimes immediate and sometimes loose, there is no narrative to piece together.  Instead of buried secrets, audience members uncover the intricate particulars of these characters’ lives.  This production aims to provide a non-linear cross-section of the small moments; the conflict between parents and children, the stress of planning a birthday party, or the weird way one person reminds you of another.  Most of the time it succeeds tremendously.

Jim (Tim Dowd) and Lucy (Clara Wong) play Rock-Paper-Scissors over where to go for their honeymoon in The Photo Album.
Jim (Tim Dowd) and Lucy (Clara Wong) play Rock-Paper-Scissors over where to go for their honeymoon in The Photo Album.

Lisa Reinke directed the piece and co-wrote it along with a small army of playwrights, some of whom also perform in it:  John Cominskey, Josh Currence, Timothy Farrell, Amaris Gonzalez, C. S. Hanson, Holly Hepp-Galván, Daniel Ho, Lindsay Joelle, Jack Karp, Karyna Kudzina, Natalie Morel, Samuel Webb, and Kyung Sik Won.  It’s an ambitious project, if a little difficult to manage.  The theater was full the night I attended, meaning we outnumbered the performers more than two to one.  There was always a healthy queue for each storyteller.  Out of thirty-three possible stories, I only managed to hear seven.  Also a bummer – though certainly by no fault of the Story Gym – my trusty Samsung couldn’t get enough signal to make the Layar app work, so I had to rely up the helpers in white coats to scan the photos for me.

In my limited experience video game themed theater takes two forms – plays exploring the effect of video games on people, in which the actual gaming is a small part, and performance pieces attempting to replicate some part of the gaming experience.  “The Photo Album” definitely falls into the latter category.  Like in many Role Playing Games, the “player” in The Photo Album must interact with a number of characters, each time obtaining different information based on new clues he or she has collected.  In something like The Legend of Zelda, this means that the generous Moblin who gives you all that money earlier might also give you a hint for defeating an enemy if you go back to him later and offer him a leg of mutton.  What is edifying about the video game experience in The Photo Album is that goal – unlike something more mission-based – isn’t to talk to people to get information.  The goal is to talk to people.  What is usually just a means to an end in a video game is the end here.

Because why do we even play video games like that?  Not for the information that will lead to us completing the game.  Not in the Story Gym’s perspective anyway.  We don’t play to win.  We play to play.

And for stickers.

An example photo from The Photo Album
An example photo from The Photo Album

Presented by The Story Gym as part of the Game Play Festival at The Brick, 579 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, NY. Through July 26. (866) 811-411 or www.bricktheater.com.

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