Shawn Sides and Thomas Graves directed this latest iteration of the company-devised performance, a mesmerizing accumulation of cardboard mountains that grow impossibly epic in scale. Performers Mari Akita, Eva Claycomb, Thomas Graves, Kevin Jacaman, Kelsey Oliver, and Alexandra Bassiakou Shaw affect the personas of diligent, expert laborers. In their rough dungarees, they proceed mostly without speech to build a cardboard phantasmagoria in the round.
While company member Crystal Bird Caviel was sadly not able to perform her usual role on the night I attended, Kirk Lynn (who wrote the poetic text that floats throughout the piece) did step in to recite. The words unwind effortlessly and with meditative energy as the builders go methodically about their work. Beginning sentence after sentence with the phrase “Not every mountain…,” the text expands slowly and through accretion.
Not every mountain resists love.
Not every mountain is giving the finger to the sky.
Not every mountain would sink if you flung it into the ocean.
Not every mountain would skip if you flung it across the lake.
Not every mountain wants you to go down on it.
Or some other times, the speaker wends through a litany of questions and answers on birds and their relationship to the mountain or a marriage that makes its way to the mountain that is the local landfill.
Lynn’s simple sentences huddle together in cryptic paragraphs, unparsable except for the abiding sense that they aim at the unsayable. Rather than engineering the performance, though, the text collaborates with the orderly ritual of mountain-building. After all, the speaker remains ambiguous.
Is this the mountain’s monologue? Wisdom handed down from the guru who lives on the mountain? The proceeding from the mountains’ semi-millennial conference? Just a person who sees both eternity and finitude when they look up?
Warmth and playfulness in the recitation invite the audience to freely choose to make meaning where they can. The words might be suggestions for what to think about while mountains are made before you. In contrast, the other performers’ industry transforms them into a machine so precise that spectators mostly watch in awe. Peter Stopschinski’s stunning musical score fastens these directions into a unified experience while also highlighting the surreality of reproducing nature in performance.
Above all, though, “Not Every Mountain” summons joys.
An apparently inexhaustible supply of cardboard pyramids could hardly end up otherwise, but this company of performers manipulate them so sincerely that humor and emotional truth can both live inside their work. Rather than serving as a counterweight to poignancy, joy bursts forth as an equally valid end.
Although many devised and non-narrative shows depend on the unreproducible intersections of text, action, audiences that find each other in new ways each performance, “Not Every Mountain” especially excels as a container for such conjugations. Even the mistakes that will invariably accompany an intricate array of strings, pulleys, leaf blowers, and magnates in raising this set up from the ground feel of a piece with the whole. They reveal precision as illusion, performance as workshop, and – ultimately – the mountain as a made thing.
At the beginning of the piece, Thomas Graves (not incidentally also the set designer) chants as a kind of prologue that what we are about to see “contains its opposite.” It’s both otherworldly and very much of our world, an obstacle and an objective, a brush with eternity and hardlined finitude.
It is both a thing and its opposite. Everything and nothing.
Or maybe that’s just how I heard it. Not every mountain would hear it that way.