Created, Written, Designed, and Directed by Normandy Sherwood
Presented by HERE and Dream Music Puppetry Program
Off Off Broadway, Experimental Theatre
Runs through 9.30.23
HERE, 145 6th Avenue
by Sarah Weber on 9.16.23
Kate Brehm (center), with Nikki Calonge and Elyse Durand in Psychic Self Defense. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: An immersive design experiment that takes audiences on a magical tour of a theater’s space and objects.
Whatever you thought were the rules of theatre and storytelling, tear them up, stomp on the pieces, and throw them away. Or just toss them into Normandy Sherwood’s stage creature and it’ll happily chew up and spit them out for you. An immersive and design-centered experiment, Psychic Self Defense is a smorgasbord for the senses where the stage is the main character and the performers are at its service.
The experience starts backstage, where a bejeweled masked figure guides you through a maze of baroque-style fabrics, crystal balls, chandeliers, and radio soundscapes. Eventually, you make your way to your seats to find a shimmering gold curtain right in front of you. It’s abundantly clear before the show even starts that the audience will not have the typical distance and safety of a proscenium stage—you’re in the stage. Once the curtain rises, we meet two protagonists: a man (Ean Sheehy) well versed in the art of psychic self-defense, and a woman (Nikki Calonge) ready to dive in for the first time. Both are sucked into yet another curtain, transported into a world of cheeky creatures, neglected knots, and a ballet of giant tassels.
They end up in a room with a single black curtain behind them, and three bells descend from the ceiling. The man, perhaps overconfident, examines each bell carefully, while the woman fearfully stares from a safe distance. Suddenly, she’s inspired to ring one, and the stage rewards her by regurgitating a tangled mass of gold tinsel on top of her—she slowly pokes her head out laughing with joy, and is escorted to some other realm. Meanwhile, the man is left alone, and is now terrified—he tries to ring one of the bells, but it’s empty. The stage rewards him with a heavy ball of tangled rope, and a pair of rope creatures who taunt him throughout the show.
In the program, Sherwood describes Psychic Self Defense as “an homage to the physical space and objects of the theater—and the labor of making it...My hope is that this playfully abstract and richly sensory experience creates a social space for audiences to reflect on, cultivate, and experiment with their own attention.” There is no doubt this production pays tribute to the objects that make up the theater—the creative team used every possible rig, prop, light fixture, speaker, and bolt of fabric at their disposal and stuffed it all into HERE’s upstairs blackbox space. The interaction of Sherwood’s costume and curtain designs and Daniel Allen Nelson’s rigging design is particularly impressive and are the essence of the production. And Christina Tang does a wonderful job of using lighting design to enhance the shapes and textures of the fabrics on stage.
Meanwhile, the performers work together in a highly choreographed dance of grabbing ropes and rearranging pulleys to bring the design team’s creations to life. If the designs are an homage to the objects of the stage, then the performers are a celebration of the stagehands we take for granted in this industry. Seeing how much fun the performers are having is contagious, especially in those moments when the larger character of the stage is particularly silly or capricious. At one moment when Sheehy is alone and scared on a dark set, all of a sudden a curtain of bright yellow florals cuts through the stage. Calonge is partially absorbed by this curtain, and she’s having the time of her life. She notices Sheehy and waves to him with a cartoonishly large smile—the audience bursts out laughing.
Perhaps the most impressive performance during this hour of seemingly infinite curtain swaps and costume changes is from Psychic Self Defense’s production stage manager Max Mooney and deck stage manager Allie Posner. I cannot imagine the sheer number of cues this show contains, and they deserve their own shout-out for handling the piece’s coordinated chaos with perfection.
The one aspect of the evening I struggled with is the ongoing soundscape of '90s computer noises and radio feedback. I recognize the sound design is meant to be uncomfortable, but the jarring quality often took me out of the spectacle. That said, perhaps this is one of the ways the show forced me to “experiment with [my] own attention.” That aside, if you’re looking for a theatrical design experiment to will engage all your senses, Psychic Self Defense is a must see. It’s a perfect kick-off to HERE’s 30th-anniversary season.
(Psychic Self Defense plays at HERE, 145 6th Avenue, through September 30, 2023. The running time is 60 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8:30; Fridays at 8:30 and 11; Saturdays at 4 and 8:30; and Sundays at 4. Tickets are $10-$100 (all general admission) and are available at here.org.)
Psychic Self Defense is created, written, designed, and directed by Normandy Sherwood. Composition and Sound Design by Craig Flanagin. Scenic and Rigging Design by Daniel Allen Nelson. Lighting Design by Christina Tang. Curtains and Costumes by Normandy Sherwood. Conceptual Collaborators are Daniel Allen Nelson, Nikki Calonge, Craig Flanagin, Ean Sheehy, and Christina Tang. Sound Engineer is Travis Wright. Creative Producer is Kristin Marting. Line Producer is Caitlin Adams. Video Animations by Nico Schiavone. Video Engineers are Attilio Rigotti and Orsolya Szánthó. Production Stage Manager is Max Mooney. Deck Stage and Wardrobe Manager is Allie Posner. Mixing Engineer is Chris Knollmeyer. Production Manager is Daniel Allen Nelson. Technical Direction by Ben Elling. Master Electrician is Sarazina Stein. Assistant Director is Elyse Durand. Assistant Scenic and Props Designer is Jonathan Cottle. Assistant Lighting Designer is Jordan Barnett. Assistant Costume Designer is Maia Kahn. Installer is Yung Oh Le Page. Props Assistant is Robert Smith.
The cast is Daniel Allen Nelson, Kate Brehm, Nikki Calonge, Elyse Durand, Ean Sheehy, and Adrienne Swan. Musicians are Craig Flanagin and Normandy Sherwood.