Betroffenheit (State of Shock)


Kidd Pivot & Electric Company Theatre

American Dance Festival

Durham Performing Arts Center

closed July 15

Auteur director and choreographer Crystal Pite doesn’t wait long to let us know how far in we’re over our heads at the start of Betroffenheit (State of Shock). With the glacial pacing and intensity we’ve seen in parts of Showtime’s revival of Twin Peaks, gray lights slowly reveal the unclean walls of designer Jay Gower Taylor’s dingy, industrial set.

As we discern junction boxes mounted on a corner wall and a single, vertical I-beam, there’s an almost imperceptible movement in the gloom. It doesn’t come from humans, but rather a group of long, thick electrical cables that slither in all directions from the boxes they were connected to, of their own volition, up the walls at back and toward the sides and front edges of the stage.

No one wants the lights going off anytime after that.

The subsequent unease and occasional horror in Betroffenheit clearly emanate from people instead of supposedly inanimate objects, yet the spirits of David Cronenberg and David Lynch are never far away. As the work’s central character (played by Jonathon Young, who also wrote the script) comes to in this odd chamber, audio fragments of unseen voices suggest a catastrophe similar to the one that befell the playwright in 2009, when a cabin fire killed his daughter and two cousins during a vacation.

Gradually, we realize that the voices and the other characters on stage embody different facets of the same shattered psyche. The sub-personalities include an uncanny, leggy, cirque-style clown (Tiffany Tregarthen) who at one point visually echoes Michelangelo’s Pieta when she cradles Young’s frame, and a frenemy character (Jermaine Spivey), the cohost of a surreal, demented, Vegas-style floor show that references All That Jazz, choreographer Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film that depicts his own breakdown.

It’s wrenching to watch Young’s character reiterate the patterns that reinforce his character’s crippling guilt, addiction, and post-traumatic stress. Eventually, his alter egos stop subverting and tearing at one another and unite in an attempt to save his life. When his breathing stops, ours does too, on this dark ride through the psychological underworld of grief.