Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes at The Painted Bride Art Center
Our newest writer to join Artbog, Catherine Rush, reviews the dreamy world created in "Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes" at The Painted Bride Art Center. It is one of the many wonderful performances premiering as part of the 2017 Fringe Festival. She writes, "The work’s structure is built intentionally in the tensions among its talented collaborators, thematically mirroring the dazzling acrobatics both playfully and profoundly employed."

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“WE, THE SEAFARERS, START A NEW WORLD TOGETHER.”

So goes the “Seafarers Chant,” a mantra bellowed throughout Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes by actors/artists/acrobats Nicole Burgio, Nick Gillette, Ben Grinberg, and Adam Kerbel, marking the peak moments of euphoric solidarity their characters experience aboard their imaginary vessel at sea. Four eccentrics with a shared love of acrobatics and self-discovery, Wentoba (Burgio), Kent (Gillette), Javier (Grinberg), and Clavis (Kerbel), happen upon each other at a party and then join forces to craft a shared world.

An Installation That Doubles As A Stage

I caught Leaps of Faith on Wednesday, September 6th, at The Painted Bride Art Center, a building in Old City drenched in Isaiah Zagar’s distinctive mirrored mosaics. Inside, a multi-media, interactive installation by Clancy Philbrick spans from the performance space, up the stairs, and above the audience’s seating into a lofted area serving as both improvised backstage and gallery. Philbrick and Robin Stamey (stage manager/designer and Almanac company member) hung huge sails from the Independence Seaport Museum, which operated as stage curtains and props, and installed dramatic colored lighting that changes throughout the show.

Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes at The Painted Bride Art Center
Photo courtesy of Clancy Philbrick. Installation detail.

At the opening, Philbrick offered guests a guided walkthrough of the installation and answered a few of my questions. “The idea was to blend the lines between the show space, performance space, and the installation space,” Philbrick tells me. After serendipitously meeting Grinberg in the back of an Uber pool and exchanging the customary “we should collaborate sometime,” Philbrick soon learned that Stamey also worked in the same building in which he has his studio. When invited to join in on this new iteration of Leaps (which first premiered — with a different soundtrack, choreography, writing, and without the accompanying art installation — at Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia in 2015), he leapt at the opportunity.

Philbrick, who grew up on the coast of Connecticut where his father built sailboats, has long incorporated similar representational themes in his work. “To me…the ocean, it’s the most forgiving yet unforgiving thing in the world,” he muses. “At one moment it can be…soft and easygoing, amiable, and friendly with the human body…but it can change like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. Philbrick’s multimedia installation comprises several traditional and deconstructed seascapes, but the crux of the show lies in his interactive pieces, particularly three large suspended clouds inviting — through prompts and situations best experienced in person — participants to contemplate their own belief systems, ways of viewing themselves, and the practice of listening to others’ beliefs.

Meet the collaborators

The ensemble reunited over the six weeks leading up to the performance, and with director/choreographer Annie Wilson reworked the former Leaps piece into its current manifestation. Over that time Philbrick visited them nearly every day sketching, crafting, and having them collaborate on the installation, which also displays sailors’ logs that each cast member wrote, at Philbrick’s request, from their character’s point of view.

Meanwhile multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer Melanie Hsu, who is based in Philly but was working on a project in Montana through August, kept a finger on the changing pulse of the production. A week before the opening, Hsu flew back to rehearse and perform the original score at each show. When I asked how long it took to create the versatile, hypnotic, jazzy, velvet-voice-laced sonic backdrop, Hsu giggled with disarming charm before responding with a shrug, “a week?”

Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes at The Painted Bride Art Center
Photo by Daniel Kontz. Ben Grinberg, Nicole Burgio, Adam Kerbel, and Nick Gilette performing in Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes.

The intermingling of spontaneity and skill infuses every element of Leaps of Faith. The work’s structure is built intentionally in the tensions among its talented collaborators, thematically mirroring the dazzling acrobatics both playfully and profoundly employed.

The script, written by Wilson and the ensemble, is funny, disjointed, and at times surprisingly weighty. The most striking physical feats gain much of their power from the contrasting frenetic interludes in interaction with the spoken word. Concatenating in time catalogued through the enumeration of days at sea, the order eventually folds into itself, forming an alternate chaos loop of distorted memory, mania, and disintegration.

In a sense Leaps presents a lighthearted meditation on the prerequisite and developing madness that a life devoted to any art faces, yet the group dynamic provides a comfort and contagious catalyst. How can a shared madness transcend, protect, and amplify the individual experience? Is it still madness when shared?

A Storm In Us All

Leaps traces the fine line between a collective and a cult, the consensual establishment of hierarchy and the necessary negation of that hierarchy implied by true consensus.

Ideas and beliefs—alongside conceptions of individuality and collectivity—fuse, weave, and alchemize in Leaps, making for a radical and timely production. Where the characters are, how much time is passing, whether the boat is real or not, are unresolved and ultimately unimportant questions in this absurd and beautiful world they create. A high energy, physically action-packed piece, Leaps remains nonetheless intrinsically non-violent. Though they question each other, dialogue, and tumble, they never attack. Grappling with issues on the boat (hunger, desire, and insanity to name a few) they don’t encounter any storms at sea, only themselves (and an occasional piece of trash, fish, or dolphin).

Photo by Daniel Kontz. Ben Grinberg and Nicole Burgio performing in Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes.

In their commitment to each other, and in their commitment to their art, not in spite of but in exhilaration of their Sisyphean days of repeated effort, the group becomes something else entirely. “We are anything! We are everything!” the cast calls out, hope and audacity spurring recurring rounds of revelation. In self-sustaining, self-exhausting ecstasy, they proclaim: “We are land!” “We are light!” Hazarding towards becoming one, they achieve moments of oneness with everything at sea.

When asked how he thinks the collaboration situates, in light of current, unprecedented storms raging the US and the world, Philbrick delves into his own beliefs: “to think we’re separate from the ocean is ridiculous…it’s crazy to think that we are not of the ocean, or not of water.”

Tickets for Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes are available here.

Catherine Rush is a poet, performer, and organizer currently based in the Philadelphia area. Fresh from Atlanta, Georgia, Rush has previously reviewed for Burnaway, ArtsATL, The Goat Farm’s Medium, and Wussy Mag.

Tags

Adam Kerbel, Ben Grinberg, Clancy Philbrick, Fringe Festival 2017, Nick Gillette, Nicole Burgio, philadelphia, Robin Stamey, the painted bride art center

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