PUSH Physical Theatre's new masterwork, "Arc of Ages," embraces epic stories of Western civilization and explores basic human archetypes by depicting the legendary struggles of biblical characters. Dramatic, action-packed interpretations of Samson, Delilah, David, Bathsheba, and Job connect audiences to these characters' flawed humanness, and to the continued relevance of their plights today.
"What do these stories have to tell that keeps returning them to the forefront of art and popular culture?" co-founder and director Darren Stevenson asked in a recent interview with City. "Certainly these characters embody some of the most dysfunctional relationships you can imagine. There is an awful lot of sex and violence perpetrated on these people. Our generation tends to sanitize the classics, ignore issues we prefer not to deal with."
Stevenson promises, however, that the production would warrant no rating higher than PG if paralleled to film. There is no nudity, and the rawness and violence are neither random nor meaningless. Indeed, for children ages 8 and over seeing the production with parents, the content can provide fodder for important conversations, Stevenson says.
Stevenson and his wife, Heather Stevenson, formed the company in 2000 as a means to "push" the boundaries of conventional theater. Its first major work, premiered in 2009, was the highly praised "Dracula."
"For us, physical theater is about communicating with the body as the primary tool, which is really pretty cool," Darren Stevenson says. "One pertinent saying is that 'the body never lies.' We are so attuned to body language, and the stories of our lives are recorded in our muscles. When we move, memories and emotions come up in us — and in the audience. If you watch the audience at one of our performances, you will see them moving — swaying, leaning, and so on. It's a basic physiological response."
PUSH uses a hybrid movement form that incorporates modern dance, non-traditional partnering (heavily influenced by the contemporary dance group Pilobolus), acrobatics, mime, and other disciplines, depending in part on the particular talents of its current company members. Right now, its five core members include veteran Jonathan Lowery, former Cirque du Soleil performer Avi Pryntz-Nadworny, Rochester Parkour member Andrew Salmon, and both Stevensons. Eighteen additional members round out the cast for "Arc of Ages."
At a recent rehearsal, Pryntz-Nadworny, 25, was practicing his role as the suffering title character in "The Trials of Job." For a good part of this piece, Pryntz-Nadworny propels himself around stage within a 60-pound steel ring called the cyr wheel, a potentially dangerous piece of equipment named after Daniel Cyr, a circus artist from Montreal who popularized the apparatus. More popular in Canada and Europe, the wheel, is, however, slowly gaining in popularity in the States. This is the first time that PUSH has incorporated it into a piece.
Pryntz-Nadworny, who grew up in Brighton, studied circus art in Quebec and Italy, and has been performing professionally since he was 21. This is his second year with PUSH. Watching him simultaneously keep the cyr wheel in motion and express the wrenching pain of Job's plight through his tormented facial expressions, bodily movements, and anguished breathing and cries, belies the difficulty of performing on this piece of equipment.
"It's almost like an extension of Ari's body at this point," Stevenson says. "And having Ari inside that wheel is a great metaphor for Job being stuck in pain."
Pryntz-Nadworny worked closely with Stevenson to create the piece. Stevenson is not an expert on the cyr wheel, so a good deal of improvisation from Pryntz-Nadworny was needed to put together the choreography.
"Avi was basically like, 'Yes, I can do that.' Or 'No, I can't do that.' Or 'Yes, I can do that, but it would be cooler to do this,'" Stevenson says.
"There are really three sequences that correspond to Job's emotions," Pryntz-Nadworny says. "First, Job experiences anger, questions why this is happening to him. Next, despair. And finally, tormented possession. I basically looked for movements that expressed those qualities."
During this rehearsal, the group runs through the work's wrenching ending again and again, struggling to find the truest and most emotionally affective depiction of the final plot element: Job's wife, portrayed by Rachel Kodweis, rejoining her husband, choosing to share in his pain.
By this point, Pryntz-Nadworny has expressed frenzied agony at his situation — tearing and scratching at his skin (boils were one of Job's curses), lunging from side to side, lashing out at stage-mates and letting loose with primal yelps of pain. Finally, he sinks to the ground within the circle of the cyr wheel, knees to chest, forehead to floor, hands covering head. Eventually, he rises back up to his knees, gaze casting suspiciously around, before leaning backward onto his arms, his palms open in a gesture of submission.
Kodweis enters from offstage, darting in alarm toward the ring, only to bring herself up short, afraid and unsure, teetering there like someone unwilling to enter a body of cold water. But, a dawning of awareness slowly suffuses her features, as if just now she is realizing what a balm her presence could be and, gingerly but with determination, she steps over and into the ring, literally joining her husband in his eternal circle of pain. And Job's face brightens slightly, not even a smile, but enough to register his appreciation of her act of love.
This is strong stuff, and my eyes actually moisten watching this scene again and again in such close proximity. I find myself thinking about people in my own life and feeling unsettling inflections of guilt that will linger with me throughout the evening. That is the kinesthetic power of PUSH, its ability to elicit emotions within us through physical witness. It forces me to ponder earlier comments Stevenson made about art.
"Art asks questions. There are so few answers anywhere in life, and art creates more uncertainty," Stevenson says. "That can be a very powerful thing. It can also make people angry or uncomfortable. They don't want to be asked those questions."
But I don't doubt that PUSH will keep posing them.
Jonathan Lowery and Darren Stevenson (left to right) in "Arc of Ages."
PHOTO COURTESY PUSH PHYSICAL THEATRE