Geologic Formations: the overly abstract title is a clue

In Geologic Formations, the company uses fabric to represent myofascia.

The physical imagery in Geologic Formations delivers less than it promises.

Geologic Formations is a show about embodiment, but it is rarely viscerally embodied.

In Geologic Formations, mia susan amir explores the multigenerational psychological and physical effects of trauma. Her saba (grandfather) survived the Bialystok Ghetto in Poland during WW II. But “survived” is a relative word. After the war, amir’s saba threw a knife at his wife’s head while their daughter, amir’s mother, looked on. Amir’s mother terrified the writer by, apparently, trying to strangle her when she was a child. In the text, amir tells us that she suffers physical pain, which she associates with her family’s multigenerational disturbance.

That’s intense material to start with. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this project retreats to heady abstractions.

In Geologic Formations, amir, who plays herself, is aided by five other female performers, some of whom clearly represent different aspects of the playwright. The text they deliver is dense and sometimes poetic. Describing amir’s sense that she has calcified tissue in her myofascia, Soma, who speaks for the body, says: “The stones roll around in there it seems, displacing my joints and muscles and bones with weighty burden. When I shift my shoulder, it click, click, clicks back into place, stirring the stones into a flurry of rhythm, a drumroll. The stones keep life metronomic in a sense, offering a reliable and unrelenting meter to which my body capitulates…”

There’s intelligence in this linguistic style, but it leaves out a couple of important things, including urgency and consequences. In simple terms, what does amir’s discomfort actually feel like? How does it affect her daily life? A few times, the text refers to pain, but mostly to say that it’s a reminder of presence. If amir really is sanguine about her physical condition, what is her project in this story? What is she trying to resolve? And what are the consequences? If she doesn’t achieve a successful resolution, what happens? And, if she does, what does her liberation look like in concrete terms?

In asking these questions, I’m suggesting that the script could benefit from a more specific and explicit narrative, but literal storytelling isn’t the only way to engage an audience.

Geologic Formations does approach its subject matter from other angles, and there is one passage that’s memorable. In a reference to the old brick buildings of Bialystok, the actors build different shapes with bricks throughout the performance. After amir visits Bialystok, she and Soma arrange the bricks in a line that extends all the way across the playing area. The bricks look like a row of prisoners or like tombstones. Amir tips one of them over and they all fall like dominoes, forming a narrow, jagged path, which amir then walks along in her bare feet.

This passage says a lot about the horror and scale of the Holocaust, about bodies lost and potentially forgotten, and about the difficulty of negotiating that historical absence in the present.

Most of the imagery isn’t nearly this effective, although the scenographic design holds promise. The audience sits around an oval playing area and, at one end of the oval, several bundles of white bundles of white fabric hang from a post. Throughout the performance, the actors unravel strands of that white fabric and stretch it across the theatre, securing it to barred windows and other anchors, creating the sense that the audience is inside bodily tissue.

Rather than becoming a compelling experience, however, this staging remains stranded in the land of ideas. In arash khakpour’s choreography, the actors loll around in the web, illustrating something, but that something remains vague.

I enjoyed the immersiveness of Nancy Tam’s sound design and the delicacy of Daniel O’Shea’s lighting and projections, which sometimes seem to populate the space with fireflies or electrical impulses. I also appreciated the authority of Lissa Neptuno’s performance as a character called Doc.

Mostly though, my take on Geologic Formations is that it’s reaching for a theatrical vocabulary that it hasn’t grasped yet.

GEOLOGIC FORMATIONS By mia susan amir. Presented by the 2018 rEvolver theatre festival with the Playwrights Theatre Centre. At The Cultch, Greenhouse on Wednesday, May 23. Continues until May 27.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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