During the months of the pandemic, some area stages were filled with sets for plays they had planned to do and almost all were illuminated by "ghost lights," bulbs attached to stands that keep the spirit of drama alive even when nothing's on stage.
The Moving Company doesn't have its own theater so I'm not sure what its ghost light situation was but, now that it's back with its first live show in two years, it is thinking about why we have theater, how creators and audiences interact and whether any of that still makes sense.
If you've ever seen MoCo works such as "Speechless," you know they're not about telling us what to think. Their words and images suggest things it might be interesting to think about and feelings a lot of us are grappling with. In "Anamnesis," which the company defines as "bits and pieces from a supposed previous existence," it's a self-reflexive questioning of the very work the theater does.
After sounds of a thunderstorm, Nathan Keepers opens the show with the wry humor that characterizes it, "So. Where were we?" What follows is a company of actors who were rehearsing a play before a disruption — maybe a natural disaster, maybe a pandemic — and are finding their way back to it. We get several scenes from the play, which features a son (Keepers) visiting his memory-challenged mother (Masanari Kawahara) and her nurse (Jennifer Baldwin Peden).
The scenes come out of order, with digressions and interruptions. From an audience standpoint, this can be frustrating — just when we get wrapped up in the emotions of an exchange, the actors pop out of it to ask a question or change scenes. But, um, the pandemic is frustrating, too, so that makes sense.
One major compensation is the piece's abundant humor, as when Baldwin Peden tells Steven Epp she's holding her arm aloft because "I have a bowl in my hand." He replies, "Oh, yeah. You're the nurse," and Baldwin Peden, looking at her empty hand holding a "bowl," replies, with a what-are-you-an-idiot look, "Yeah."
Baldwin Peden is hilarious, particularly in a scene where she's a costume designer who seems to have studied at the Patricia Field Goofball Institute of Technology and another in which she whips through brief bits of two plays by Anton Chekhov and another by Moliere.
There are several Chekhov references in "Anamnesis," as well as a scene in which the cast becomes a herd of elephants. Since they famously never forget, elephants reinforce the idea of trying to remember the past while creating something new. As the eight performers recall how to put on a play, and we remember how to watch one, there's a sense that storytelling can be a tool to deal with what's to come.
If you're looking for a traditional, well-made play, that's not what MoCo does. "Anamnesis" comes from a place of frustration and confusion, but also of hope. Epp underscores that in a monologue about losing track of what's true or false (which is also kind of a definition of enjoying a play), concluding, "I'm only the messenger. Go. Help. Do something."
The best parts of "Anamnesis" show that even after many months away from us, theater still has something to offer. Which is why, as patrons leave, that ghost light is on, illuminating the stage until we get back together to do it all again.
Who: Conceived by Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand. Directed by Serrand.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri-Sat, 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 4.
Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $32, southerntheater.org.