Debuting as part of the Fusebox 2023 festival, Rude Mechs’ “Contranyms (A Performance Ritual)” takes place in an alternate history. In this world, those on the far, far right and far, far left sides of politics no longer understand each other. They mean different things when they speak the same words. Sometimes, they promote violence. So, to realign their language, they go to Chant Camp.
The show, written by Kirk Lynn, directed by Shawn Sides and Madge Darlington, and co-created by performers Alexandra Bassiakou Shaw, Anna Eisley, Thomas Graves, Lana Lesley, and Mari Akita, positions the audience as Chant Camp attendees.
The performers all wear white Chant Camp polos and take their jobs as camp staff seriously. In groups of about six at a time, audience members are guided into Crashbox, Rude Mechs’ warehouse turned performing space, where they complete a check in process, then move into the performance area. Staged like a drab civic center events room, it is complete with cheap wood-paneled walls, fluorescent lighting, and a couple of flags. Chairs are set up in a large circle, and each audience member is assigned a seat. When words appear on projection screens positioned around the room, everyone reads them aloud.
The organized chants practiced during camp included concepts like “democracy,” and “justice,” and words like “table” that seem ordinary on the surface but can refer to multiple kinds of objects. Chants referenced, for example, tables with one, three, and four legs, as well as the periodic table.
But the experimentation with language only begins there. The play’s title refers to words that mean both something and its opposite, including words like “buckle” (to connect or to break apart) and “hold up” (to support or to hinder). The audience collectively reads these words too.
(This problem of one word describing multiple variations on the concept of table is one of the oldest examinations of language’s limitations in existence. In Plato’s “The Republic,” Socrates and his interlocutors use it to illustrate the incompleteness of representations compared to ideal forms, while they are discussing the best way to set up a commonwealth. Ironically in view of playwright Lynn’s echoes of this conversation, in their commonwealth, theatre is not allowed.)
But “Contranyms” is not a performance theorist’s utopian plan to heal America through chanting. As performer Lana Lesley informs us in her introduction to camp, this is a tragedy. Soon it becomes clear what she means. There are plants at Chant Camp, and not the kind that grow in soil.
Information about these plants and their schemes surfaces through mail call. Attendees read the letters they receive aloud, as part of a policy to prevent illicit language from entering the controlled environment. Language is so controlled at camp that painter’s tape is used to cover any words visible on audience members’ clothing. Yes, as the audience reads, “there was a lot of oversight at chant camp.” But does that mean supervision, or negligence? The contranyms introduce an enticing ambiguity.
In addition to reading aloud from projections and letters, Chant Camp involves lots of activities. In a quickly subverted moment of intimacy, each audience member ties a bandana around the neck of one of their neighbors. The bandana colors alternate between green and purple, and while no one is sure of their own or anyone else’s background in the context of the play, these colors signal associations or teams along which divides form. Certain phrases are read by just the greens or just the purples, fueling an us vs. them dynamic.
Yet, greens and purples interact too. The audience learns a camp dance that includes do-si-doing across the aisle. Audience members are prompted to make assumptions about each other. And humming different notes, the group aurally indicates whether or not it is on the same page.
But as camp continues, underground activity does too. Plans are hatched during secret nighttime meetings, and camp ends with a high stakes climax, punctuated by a dramatic stage effect that leaves the audience stunned as the show ends.
Putting 90% of the words spoken throughout the show into the mouths of audience members, the play drives home that language matters. It morphs from a tool for unity to one of division literally as we speak. Explaining that watching the show means playing a game, the Rudes seamlessly lead the audience through the performance. But as camp unravels, the play is dramatic and unsettling.
When we, as audience members, say “let them have it,” do we mean “stop, let go” or “go on, lash out?” Contanyms are a funny quirk of language, but in the context of political division, in this play they become an indicator of just how separated we can be from one another. Asking whether words like “freedom” are becoming contranyms already, the show prompts greater consideration of what we say and what we mean when we say it.
‘Contanyms’ continues April 19-22 at the Rude Mechs’ Crashbox, 5305 Bolm Road. Get tix at fuseboxfestival.com/project/contranyms