Theater Review: “A Gun Show” — A Percussive Meditation on Firearms

This company of highly talented collaborators asks: “What is it about our collective psyche that fastens on so tightly to guns?”

A Gun Show created, written and performed by Sō Percussion (Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting), and Emily Johnson. Directed by Ain Gordon. Staged by Vermont Performance Lab at New England Youth Theatre, Brattleboro, VT, on September 23rd and 24th.

Photo: Stephanie Berger

A scene from Sō Percussion’s “A Gun Show.” Photo: Stephanie Berger.

By David Greenham

In the New Orleans suburb of Metairie at some point during the evening of September 24th, 67 year-old Larry Townsend picked up his shotgun and killed his wife Linda, and then turned the gun on himself. At about the same time, 1,500 miles north of there in Brattleboro, Vermont, the members of the innovative Sō Percussion, Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson, and three time Obie winner Ain Gordon were just embarking on a thoughtful exploration of the ramifications of Mr. Townsend’s decision to pick up a loaded gun.

A Gun Show, which previewed for two nights in Brattleboro thanks to the Sara Coffey’s plucky Vermont Performance Lab, is a meditation on our complicated and often chaotic relationship with guns. This company of highly talented collaborators asks: “What is it about our collective psyche that fastens on so tightly to guns?”

A red carpeted raked stage serves as the setting for the show, which features Cha-Beach, Quillen, Sliwinski, Trueting, Johnson, and a team of eight guest percussionists – Lauren Chiodo, Dee Drusso, Lindsey, Chris Keeler, Rose Martin, Robert Rocheteau, Luz Carime Santa-Coloma, and Yumi Tamashiro. Bass drums, snares, tom toms, and vibraphones line either side of the stage. Along the downstage end of the rake sit four snare drums tipped over with the tops facing the audience. In front of them are four trays with what we later learn are pieces of Russian sniper rifles – easily purchased on line, it’s pointed out. Distortion pedals line the left and right sides of the stage. Further up stage is another snare drum. An array of hand-cranked sirens line the upstage end of the stage. The back wall is a large painted wilderness mural with two deer – the kind of mural you might find in a 1970s restaurant with wagon-wheel chandeliers. The appropriately benign image is inspired by the mural that was painted in a shooting range that the artistic team visited while researching the show.

A Gun Show isn’t a narrative piece, but rather an experience that comes at you in spurts. In sounds, movement, and words, the group doesn’t tell a story, they share feelings. Sometimes the transitions are smooth and seamless, and at other times they are abrupt and jarring. The performance is quiet and loud; melodic and discordant; flowing and still; lively and almost catatonic – sometimes it’s all of that at once. Johnson’s intensity and focus are mesmerizing. When she’s matched with Quillen for a contest of duel storytelling, the results are perfect. Another experience that stands out is when Treuting sticks a microphone into different sized steel cans and creates a collage of feedback. It makes you squirm in your seat, which seems appropriate in an odd way. But those are just two of many moments that ensnare your senses.

There are textual clues provided along the way through slides. They include contextual points, narrative bits, and official statistics.

Guns, they say in the notes, “represent an everyday tool to some, but a health menace to others…these small machines seem to intersect with numerous serious issues that confront our society – race, economic inequality, public safety, constitutional rights, etc.”

A Gun Show floats from exploring the sound of guns through rhythmic booming sounds of the percussion, to direct reflections of moments in time or tiny pieces of narrative. Along the way the performers dance through each section with precision and purpose. They use noise and silence equally well. There’s movement and stillness; life and death. They want to explore this big, complicated issue, but it’s so multi-faceted and filled with so many contradictions that it’s often impossible to fully grasp – again, it seems very appropriate for our confused climate about firearms, which never seems to change.

Sō Percussion Photo: Stephanie Berger

A scene from Sō Percussion’s “A Gun Show.” Photo: Stephanie Berger.

In Maine, my home, we’re holding a referendum this fall on background checks. No issue – not even the antics of our Governor or a Presidential race that seems like some kind of Wild West gunfight – excites the imagination of the voters more. Question 3 lawn signs far outnumber their competitors. At issue is background checks. They’re either the most important solution to the problem of murder and accidental shootings, or another effort to take away all the guns. Like these inspirational and dedicated performers, we seem to be at a loss for any solution. At one point, early in A Gun Show, a slide reveals that when the team started they were pretty sure that they were in agreement about the issue of guns and gun violence. However, as they began to dig deeper into the issue, they realized that they had many differences of opinion.

A Gun Show was inspired in part by the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012. We all remember the shock and outrage after that shooting occurred. For a brief moment, we all nearly agreed that “something really ought to be done.” In hindsight, it seems, we didn’t really mean it. According to a Los Angeles Times article this summer, there have been 186 school shootings since Newtown – about one a week.

The artists who created A Gun Show are thinking about the issue and responding with their art. They looked to America’s gun bible – the second amendment – for guidance. And they landed on the words “well regulated.” So far, at least, we have no consensus on what those two words mean. Obviously, we need to continue talking about it.

They’ll be bringing their conversation to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) later this year, and hopefully after that they’ll be visiting a performance space near you. Of course, in a country where even speaking out about gun violence can lead to threats, they may only be preaching to the choir. Or maybe there is no choir.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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