A Hundred Words for Snow
Through Nov. 1
In 1967, the eccentric classical pianist Glenn Gould gave his fellow Canadians an unusual and poetic audio documentary called The Idea of North.
I bring it up because Burning Coal Theatre’s careful, current live production, A Hundred Words for Snow, not only crosses similar literal and thematic territory, as it considers, in a British girl’s coming-of-age tale, the historical romance and remoteness of 90 degrees North.
For the most part, this intriguing show also uses the same means—sound, and the deliberate absence of visual stimuli—to achieve it.
Audience members are instructed, at a certain early musical cue in the show, to don a blindfold that’s been left for us—alongside a playbill and a bottle of hand sanitizer—on a tray beneath our seats. We leave the blindfolds on until the music repeats, a few minutes before the play ends.
As a result, A Hundred Words of Snow is a curious hybrid of conventional and radio drama, with a touch of an autonomous sensory meridian response on the side.
A delicious frisson lingers through the performance as people unseen—solo actor Laura Lillian Baggett (who alternates performances with Kimmy Fiorentino) and associate stage managers John Capetanos, Emily Johns, Austin McClure, and Courtney Pisano—deftly create director Jerome Davis and sound designer Nikolas Parnell’s aural landscapes that come at us from all angles: in front of, nearby and sometimes directly behind our seats.
That means you should savor designer Josh Martin’s set and lighting design while you can, since walking into Burning Coal’s theater for this show feels like entering an art installation. Four equidistant chairs—a self-imposed house limit during this part of the pandemic—each face a different side of a brightly lit square within a scrim cloth frame at the center of the room: the cozy, atmospheric study of a recently deceased high school geography teacher who’s the father of the play’s central character.
Surrounding this striking geometric layout of performance space and chairs, strategically backlit theatrical flats in the shadows along the theater’s walls suggest the ever-shifting tectonic plates that cover our unquiet planet.
At the start of playwright Tatty Hennessy’s 2017 drama, the flippant, precocious Rory is using considerable intellect—and attitude—to keep the stickier emotions of grief at bay. Fed up with the “lovely” funeral service prior to her father’s cremation, she puts into action a hastily-hatched plan to honor a dream long deferred: her father’s lifelong wish to go to the North Pole. She resolves to scatter his ashes there.
Though she’s heard about the perils of Arctic travel since a childhood of bedtime stories about explorers like Fridtjof Nansen, Rory still doesn’t realize how inadequately she’s prepared to meet those challenges until she’s in the thick of them. As Rory’s odyssey takes her into an increasingly unforgiving ecosystem, her physical and emotional survival strategies begin to fray.
Metaphorically, Rory’s journey mirrors the one we all take after losing someone important to us. Grief suddenly thrusts us into an inhospitable psychic landscape, one we’re usually unprepared at first to navigate. The degree to which we can adapt coping mechanisms outstripped by loss in large part determines our prospects for long-term survival.
But, as this cautionary tale whispers in our ears, there is only a finite time to learn new changes when one’s whole world suddenly turns cold.
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