“Über and Over” is a fairly obscure play, at least according to Google’s search algorithm. But that didn’t stop resident theatrical force of nature Sivan Battat ’15 from directing it to be performed 15 times in a row in the Van Vleck Observatory this past Saturday. Those attending just one of the performances experienced an integrative, interactive, possibly even transformative slice of experimental theater, while more ambitious theatergoers stayed for the whole pie.
The said experiment studied the effects of repetition on the development of a scene and the actors—namely Tess Jonas ’15 and Zach Libresco ’13—performing it. As groups of perplexed audience members entered the space and others fled the observatory’s penetrating chill, the actors cycled Matthew George’s abstract play through a three-hour series of varied, unpredictable performances.
Usher Jana Leigh Heaton ’14 narrated my arrival at the observatory building with panache, reciting what was either a greeting or a warning to the seven or so eager audience members who had previously signed up for a viewing online.
“Welcome to ‘Über and Over’…over…over…over,” she atmospherically self-echoed. “Please do not touch the actors. Although the same rule does not apply to them.”
Heaton was right about that. My viewing companions and I would soon enter the observatory dome and the play itself, as the actors were free to interact with any object that presented itself as a means of spicing up the monotony of repeated performance. By the final performance, I briefly became some sort of collateral or example in an argument between a blanket-clad Libresco and his scene partner.
Viewers were encouraged to move about the space at will, as there was no telling whether Libresco or Jonas would be located behind a pole or atop a ladder at a given moment.
“Zach likes to hide behind things,” Heaton warned me. And hide he did.
Either interestingly or obviously, the effects of repetition extended beyond the makeshift theater to the room where we waited. The ushers revealed that, rather than welcoming earlier audiences with the punchy speech we had the pleasure of hearing, they had simply handed them a sheet of information. Apparently, if you make anyone do the same thing 15 times in a row, eventually they’ll find a way to get creative with it.
Entering the observatory confirmed my suspicion that Heaton was indeed issuing us a warning rather than a mere introduction. As a humanities kid who for years has happily ignored the barrage of arguments that majoring in the sciences is more challenging than my chosen academic pursuit, I gained a small degree of empathy toward my nerdier peers with the realization of one key fact: the Van Vleck Observatory is COLD. At least in the case of astronomy students, a Wesleyan education is indeed both mentally and physically harrowing.
This unsavory indoor temperature didn’t bode well for Libresco, who removed his shirt during the last performance, and who is therefore probably insane.
Unsure of what we were getting ourselves into, members of my group crept up the stairs apprehensively as Libresco and Jonas, locked in an end-of-scene embrace, muttered what sounded like their last lines to another audience. But as we switched places with Audience Number 13, the actors returned to the scene’s beginning so seamlessly that it was unclear whether any change had occurred.
Unlearning the impulse to stand still took some getting used to, but following the actors as they careened around a circular “stage” was reminder enough to abandon my assumptions of what constitutes a play and what behaviors are appropriate for an audience member.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t going to understand anything that was happening at first viewing. While the dialogue seemed to adopt some form of Standard English sentence structure, lengthy descriptions of colors and unexpected mentions of baked goods would have made little sense without the analytical filter the actors provided. Whether Jonas and Libresco possess natural chemistry or just got used to each other after 13 performances is impossible to say, though the completeness with which the performers delved into their characters’ multifaceted relationship suggests the latter.
Despite the abstract text, Jonas and Libresco were effectively transformed into a tragic pair destined to repeat their relationship’s cycle “over and over,” as the title implies, stuck in a scenario that never fails to return to the same point no matter how much it changes. Each handled his or her character with beautiful yet believable whimsy as the two wove and restitched their 10-minute story.
Though I hadn’t planned to, I felt compelled to stay for the final performance and was stunned to see how differently the actors interpreted the scene while staying true to their characters and the text. Lines previously whispered were playfully sung while heart-wrenching monologues were reworked as slapstick comedy. Seeing the two performances back to back revealed the power of a genuine performance to evolve a life of its own as the actors lent themselves over to the play, letting the scene’s trajectory dictate their behavior and, ultimately, its outcome.
“They’ve come so far since the first performance,” gushed director Battat post-production as Jonas and a previously shirtless Libresco thawed after three hours in the Observatory of Freezing Doom. While Battat’s praise is well deserved, one still has to wonder if this beautiful experiment in theater and repetition was really worth the frostbite.