“Hello. Welcome to the show.” This simple greeting, spoken rhythmically and followed by an explanation of the show’s nature and purpose, not only kicks off Tangles & Plaques, the latest world premiere from the Neo-Futurists, but it also repeats throughout the show, becoming the touch point the play returns to over and over again. Tangles & Plaques is full of this sort of repetition. Why? Because of its subject matter: dementia.
The show’s creator, Neo-Futurists ensemble member Kirsten Riiber, works at a retirement home, where she encounters the world of memory loss and the field of memory care regularly. She explains the connections she sees between reminiscence therapy and theatre and comes to the play from a place of artistic and personal curiosity, rather than expertise. The expertise comes from the retirement home’s memory care director, Alex Schwaninger, who appears only briefly at the top of the show before leaving. This choice puts the audience in Riiber’s shoes; Schwaninger can provide us with a baseline knowledge of memory loss and care, but it’s left up to us and the show’s ensemble to figure out what all that means for us.
Why this show? Why now? These are the driving questions at the heart of every theatrical production, and what’s great about the Neo-Futurists’ structure is that this question can be answered not just in program notes or implication, but directly. Riiber explains that because of longer life expectancy and lower birth rates, our generation will be one that cares for the elderly, and that she wants us to start having conversations about dementia before it starts to affect us directly. Before, in some ways, it’s too late.
These conversations take place in a space decked out in nostalgic items for kids of the 80s and 90s: Nerf guns, neon, VHS tapes, ankle-shattering Skip-Its. The first half of the show celebrates childhood memories via video clips, storytelling, and the reenactment of memories (including an audience member’s first kiss, in one of the show’s most enjoyable segments), culminating in an elaborate and joyous dance piece.
But there is a dark side to memory loss, too, beyond the meaningful connections that patients can form with one another and their caregivers through the sharing of memories. Dementia comes with reduced vision and hearing, joint problems, and other physical symptoms that make moving through the world a struggle. The loved ones of those with dementia experience the pain of remembering them as they were and being unable to go back to before, to when those affected could remember their loved ones’ names and recognize their faces. Riiber consciously forces herself, and the play, to deal with this pain as well, in a second half that takes place mostly in literal darkness as it depicts, abstractly and poignantly, what it looks like for memories to die.
This show is deeply and intensely personal, both in Riiber’s consuming passion for the subject matter and in the truth the play will not allow us to ignore: statistically, someone we love will experience dementia one day. In fact, it may very well happen to us. And so dealing with this, with the reality of memory loss as an inevitable part of so many of our lives, before it happens, before it reaches a crisis point that forces us to confront it, is incredibly important. It’s a subject that most of the cast admits to not thinking about much before working on this show, and it’s a subject I admit to not thinking about much, either.
Here is the simple brilliance of Riiber’s work: she can take an audience member like me, like many audience members, who has never experienced the effects of dementia directly and with quiet, powerful honesty, make them care.
Tangles & Plaques is the sort of play you don’t stop thinking about for a very, very long time.
Location: The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (at Foster) in Andersonville
Dates: October 19 – November 18, 2017
Times: Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10-25. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. Tickets and information are available at the Neo-Futurists website or 773.275.5255
All Photos by Joe Mazza Brave Lux.