We've all seen that famous optical illusion drawing. The one where, depending how you look at it, it either shows a young woman in an elaborate hat with her face turned away, or an old woman wearing a simple headscarf. While some can see only one image or the other, many are able to see both.
Such is the case with the productions of Theater Ninjas, the innovative company that devises plays of its own creation and then mounts them with undeniable energy and fearlessness. Whether they work as theater, however, depends on the show in question and your perspective.
In Marble Cities, the new production now occupying several rooms of the Ohio City Masonic Temple, the Ninja masters are up to their signature tricks. These include torrents of words, dancing, chant/singing, running in circles, brief snatches of character, subtle audience participation, dramatic lighting, and a virtually total absence of plot.
What one can say, in general, is that the show is performed with unflagging commitment and vocal as well as physical precision. And while the flaws outweigh the strengths, it is a laudable, multilayered and challenging effort.
From one perspective, Marble Cities completely involving and compelling. You begin the evening in an anteroom art installation (by Joan Hargate) where one wall and a long table are filled with handwritten notes, odd scraps, old photos, and piles of books left open with words circled.
Then you are led through a small adjoining room into a high- ceilinged, carpeted theater with two rows of seats along two facing walls. It is there the action takes place, as eight people who have been mysteriously invited by an unknown entity gather to contemplate our tortured world and, hopefully, rebuild it.While there is a substantial amount of ensemble interaction, each character takes a solo turn at exploring his or her own demons.
From this angle, one can easily be swept along by the propulsive physicality of actors and the words that often touch on truths both large and small. However, viewed from another vantage point, the entire exercise is a rambling, largely humorless, self-indulgent jumble.
And the words of the script, devised by director Jeremy Paul and his cast, are often jejune or painfully obvious when they aren't simply too thick to pry apart.
The creators try so hard to directly tackle enormous issues (imagination, identity, power, fate, violence, secrets of the universe) that they often wind up trivializing all of it. One awaits a devised theatrical experience that focuses instead on something small, allowing the audience to find universalities where they will.
And at a length approaching two and a half hours with an intermission, Marble Cities leaves you with a long hike through lots of verbal underbrush.
But no one can fault the actors and their yeoman efforts. They include Davis Aguila, Ray Caspio, Brittany Gaul, Ryan Lucas, Cassie Neumann, Michael Prosen, Emily Pucell, and Colleen Uszak. And the lighting design, by Benjamin Gantose, is enveloping and surprising in all the best ways.
Theater Ninjas defines itself as a nomadic theater company, and that adds to the power of what they do. Occupying new spaces with their special energy creates an undeniably new experience.
Whether this translates into theatrical magic depends on your perspective.