By Cynthia Hopkins; Directorial Consultation by Rebecca Wright
Produced by Lumberyard
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Ran through 6.17.17
The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street
by Ran Xia on 6.17.17
Cynthia Hopkins in Articles of Faith. Photo by Paula Court.
BOTTOM LINE: Cynthia Hopkins' dramatic memoir is a force of hope, in which forms yield to an honest examination of loss and survival.
Cynthia Hopkins makes me think of Frida Kahlo, a woman who, broken to pieces, picked up her ravaged body parts and made art, instead of sinking into despair. And when Kahlo was done, flowers were bursting out of even the deepest wounds. Hopkins' Articles of Faith filled me with a similar kind of strength—like Kahlo's gaze through saturated color, one full of hope and unyielding perseverance.
I was first introduced to Hopkins' work through This Clement World at St Ann's Warehouse, her whimsical and sincere tribute to our rapidly changing environment. I've since been dazzled by her kaleidoscopic yet unapologetically unique style, and to this day, I still remember those carefully crafted costume pieces and gorgeous props. Her narratives are also full of poetic gems. All those vivid memories come crashing down when I realized that Hopkins created Articles of Faith as a result of the destruction of her entire body of work.
Here's what happened. Back in May 2015, Hopkins and her husband Jeff Sugg (who designed this piece) went on a long overdue vacation, unplugging at Yosemite National Park. While they were gone, a frayed power strip ignited a fire that obliterated everything in their apartment, including everything Hopkins ever wrote, and everything she had made for her previous shows. Images of those items, as well as the few salvaged pieces, are displayed all around the stage at The Kitchen: wigs, costumes, artworks, musical compositions. It's a gallery of Hopkins' past life, or perhaps a memorial, or a celebration of loss, based on how you look at it. Projected before the show starts: "An article of faith is a deeply held belief, theoretically unshakable regardless of circumstances. It's like a flame that glows steadily from within a swinging lantern on a boat being tossed by the waves."
Hopkins divides the piece into seven chapters, introducing seven articles of faith. She walks onto the stage wearing a blindfold, and asks an audience member to guide her to her place before revealing the first article: everything is educational. Hopkins' singing voice, reminiscent of Regina Spektor's—slightly affected and with a delicate strength, permeates the space, easing the audience into her unique pace, quirky and always authentic. Hopkins calls herself a pyromaniac (indeed who wouldn't, if their entire life's work were taken by fire) and tries to find the meaning of the all-consuming force that is fire with scientific definitions as well as ridiculous 80s films.
The performance flows from songs, movement, and quick comedic routines, speckled with images of Hopkins' destroyed apartment, as well as organic interactions with Sugg, who serves as an assistant, and his design, a part of Hopkins' dramatic narrative. She speaks of her kittens (Desi and Lucy, named after characters in I Love Lucy) and their miraculous survival. She describes in perfect detail her breakdown at the airport upon receiving the news, and the kindness she and Sugg received from the strangers and friends who helped them through the crisis. One of the funniest and most powerful segments consists of Hopkins lying still on a lounge chair, spilling out every single raw feeling she's had since the fire. I was mesmerized by the extraordinary and the mundane elements of her experience, and the transformation sprung from this.
The narrative that Hopkins shares in Articles of Faith come from a vulnerable place that's introspective and autobiographical, a departure from her previous, more mythic approach in storytelling, making this piece endearing and intimate. The ostensibly jarring shifts between styles are unified by the fact that all of those elements are undeniably personal. Near the end of this performance, Hopkins also reveals that Articles of Faith is an homage to the various artists who have inspired her, including Geoff Sobelle (the installation aspect of the show recalls Sobelle's The Object Lesson), Chuck Mee (the use of collage and poetry), Neil Degrasse Tyson (the amicable educational portion of the show), Lori Anderson (vocal transformation included), The Wooster Group, Gregory Burke (Black Watch), and many more. It is therefore most fitting that Hopkins ends Articles of Faith setting Jerome Bell choreography to a song she wrote that includes all the names that have proved important to both her artistic and life journey.
It might also be fair to consider that Hopkins uses her imitation of other artists as a lens through which she can heal, and survive the trauma life has given her. Indeed, it all comes down to a story of survival. The fire, described by Hopkins, made her feel a lot of different things all at once—confusion, anger, and maybe a little relief. Articles of Faith is a reminder of the fragility of life, and it's also a testament of the artist's strength at turning the most vulnerable part of herself into something unconquerable. Due to faulty wiring, an artist's legacy can go up in flames in less than an hour, but the "articles of faith" we hold on to is an invisible, eternal force.
(Articles of Faith played at The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, June 15-17, 2017. The running time was 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission. Tickets started at $25. For more information visit thelumberyard.org.)
Articles of Faith is created and performed by Cynthia Hopkins, based on real life. Designed by Jeff Sugg. Directorial Consultation is by Rebecca Wright.