Text by Nina Segal; Composed by Jen Goma; Directed by Sanaz Ghajar
Produced by Built for Collapse
Off Off Broadway, Devised Play
Runs through 5.19.18
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street
by Sarah Weber on 5.8.18
Jessica Almasy and Eva Jaunzemis in Danger Signals. Photo by Charlie Dennis.
BOTTOM LINE: An ambitious devised piece that explores lobotomies, colonialism, and the long road to recovery after brain trauma.
Between the white columns, the plastic backdrop, and the metal examination table, the stage gives off an illusion of clinical sterility. Even Jessica Almasy, one of the show’s performers, informs her audience that “She is not here to be theatrical. She is not here to entertain.” Rather she is simply here to give a “lecture on the brain.” But for all of her insistence that Danger Signals is only a lecture, it doesn’t take long to see that this subversive piece has a delicious sense of irony.
Danger Signals explores a number of topics including memory, brain trauma, the history of lobotomies, and the violent consequences of Western civilization’s desire to chart the world and the human mind. It’s a lot of ground to cover, arguably too much, and I am the first to admit having criticized other plays for biting off more than they could chew. Danger Signals should be a mess, and in many ways it is messy, yet Built for Collapse stitches all of these elements together while keeping its audience engaged through to the end—I’m in awe.
Almasy captivates our attention as a lecturer who is suddenly paralyzed into silence right as she’s meant to begin her presentation. Meanwhile we’re intermittently brought back in time with two other characters. In 1847, the last expedition of adventurer Sir John Franklin (Robert M. Johanson) to the Canadian Arctic is about to end in disaster. Johanson also portrays neurophysiologist John F. Fulton, and is a stand-in for all white male doctors. Don’t worry, in case you don’t figure that last part out he hilariously proclaims his identity to the world in what becomes a brief pop-rock concert.
Performer Eva Jaunzemis introduces us to 1935 London, where Fulton is about to demonstrate a lobotomy on two chimpanzees, Lucy and Becky. Jaunzemis narrates the events of the operation while also delivering a haunting portrayal of Lucy. As Jaunzemis bluntly describes Fulton’s presentation, and what he does to the chimps who have no idea what is happening or where they are, her stare pierces into the audience and she quietly asks, “have you ever heard a chimpanzee scream?” For a mere "lecture," Danger Signals gets deeply personal.
These various narratives bump into each other and overlap, eventually collapsing as Almasy struggles to speak. Sometimes elements from these timelines are obviously related, while at others you’ll be wondering at the point of it all. These intellectual gymnastics are almost certainly purposeful choices by director Sanaz Ghajar and playwright Nina Segal.
Ghajar suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident while developing Danger Signals, and in the show's press release, she describes her recovery process: “The accident was a schism and my brain—which collapsed and then slowly rebuilt itself—was different. The formation and reformation of pathways led to the creation of a multitude of things that were new, other, stronger, weaker and more complicated.” And Danger Signals is exactly this—a "multitude of things." Along the way, Segal agreed to collaborate on the project, making this her U.S. debut, and her unique voice shines through especially in the show’s moments of self-awareness. Jen Goma’s composition adds even more dimension to Danger Signals and works beautifully with this eclectic world the design team has created.
Thus, we have a devised theater piece that is all at once structured yet, perhaps like a recovering mind, in complete disarray. Danger Signals is meant for the theatergoer looking for an out-of-the-box experience, rather than something that's easily digestible. After all, Built for Collapse isn’t known for tying stories into a neat little bow. Danger Signals will challenge your notions of correct storytelling; you will definitely have to mull over its many moving parts and loose ends long after you walk out of the theater. If that excites you, then gather your friends and catch this show before it goes—you won’t want to miss this.
(Danger Signals plays at the New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street, through May 19, 2018. Running time is 70 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8; Sundays at 7; no show 5/6. Tickets are $20 - $25 and are available at NewOhioTheatre.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
Danger Signals was created by Built for Collapse. Text by Nina Segal. Direction by Sanaz Ghajar. Composed by Jen Goma. Choreography by Ben Hobbs. Set and Video Design by Dave Tennent. Costume Design by Karen Boyer. Lighting Design by Joe Cantalupo. Dramaturg is Emily Reilly. Stage Manager is Benjamin Pitt.
Cast is Jessica Almasy, Robert M. Johanson, and Eva Jaunzemis.