Review: "Thoughts & Prayers" Strikes a Note of Hope for Our Troubled Times

Thoughts & Prayers

Created and directed by Lauren Hlubny

Dialogue by Alexis Roblan

Music by Thomas Giles

Presented by Danse Theatre Surreality at TADA! Youth Theater

15 W 28th St., Manhattan, NYC

September 19-29, 2019

Photo by Regal Pictures/ Cathleen Marie Thérèse Parra
In our current political landscape, the phrase "thoughts and prayers" has come to serve as sarcastic shorthand for deliberate governmental inaction. While Thoughts & Prayers, the new work of dance-theater from bi-national company Danse Theatre Surreality, depicts the effects of and critiques of this craven maintenance of the status quo, it also offers a more earnest optimism in doing so than the pessimistic associations of its title phrase might suggest. As creator and director Lauren Hlubny puts it in her director's statement, "Thoughts & Prayers is a work that acknowledges the world it is made in, the world it came from, and the world that will be beyond those doors when the show is over. A work that tackles injustice and seeks hope and demands something of us." The production enacts this questing after hope with careful attention to sound, movement, and imagery, coalescing into a singular whole that challenges even as it entertains.

Photo by Regal Pictures/ Cathleen Marie Thérèse Parra
Audience seating for Thoughts & Prayers flanks the performance area to the right and left. At the edge of one side of the performance area are seated a trio of saxophone-playing Congressmen (Guy Dellecave, Josh Lang, and Galo Morales), dressed in grays that evoke something between suits and band uniforms. Opposite them sit a matching number of violin-playing Activists (Sergio Muñoz, Charlotte Munn-Wood, and Lena Vidulich), whose dress possesses shades of the resistance in a sci-fi dystopia. Reflecting the continued patriarchal character of the government, women are absent from Congress's side but make up two-thirds of the Activist side. Each of the two sides echoes the appearance of one member of a couple who begins the show seated at either end of a rectangular table at center stage, heads down: Felix (Thomas Giles), in the gray of the Congressmen, with a jacket and tie and short, military-style haircut, and Dana (Emma Factor), in a softer, knitted complement to the Activists' own clothing. The show is divided into five "disasters," including "Shooting," "Family Tragedy," and "Governmental Transgression," along with an overture and epilogue, and we see some dance and dialogue elements repeated from one disaster to the next. The repeated dance between Felix and Dana suggests mutual support and comfort as they, for example, catch, lift, or embrace one another, and their repeated conversation reveals Dana's fear not only of public spaces but also of her environmental impact and insufficient involvement in her neighborhood, anxieties that many in the audience will find relatable in a world who institutional structures make it very difficult to live up to one's own ethics. The repetition, which can be read symbolically on both personal and national levels, also changes significantly and impactfully in tone, implying an increasing distance between Felix and Dana and, seemingly, increasing despair. As Thoughts & Prayers moves towards its conclusion, the questions of where Felix, who also plays a sax, will shake out in all of this and whether Congress will stop ignoring the Activists long enough to actually listen to their concerns become central, and, in the end, the performers literally turn to the audience to implicate its members in the answers.

Photo by Regal Pictures/ Cathleen Marie Thérèse Parra
Thoughts & Prayers is replete with arresting images, not only in the choreography but also in moments such as the central table becoming a wall between the couple; the lowering of what read as blood-streaked panels on either side of the table that Dana, alone at first between them, wipes at while Activists and Congressmen confront each other along the perimeter; during the immensely satisfying "battle" sequence between the two sides, which sees violin bows occasionally wielded like épées during a musical face-off; or the simple but effective symbolization of the need for cooperative action achieved using just some brooms and dustpans. The music itself ranges from avant-garde dissonance to snatches of patriotic song to beguiling harmony, most often itself with symbolic import, and even to representing gunshots, derisive laughter, or emergency sirens. The performance intermixes with this stretches of silence in which even the breath of the performers becomes part of the soundscape. Giles and Factor are expressive and engaging through a range of emotional states as Felix and Dana, while the rest of the cast keeps things interesting—and often funny—around them.

Inventive and impassioned, the genre-bending Thoughts & Prayers is at once a sensitive recognition of present traumas, a sincere hope for the future, and a heartfelt call to action.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

Epilogue: Danse Theatre Surreality lists the following partner organization as providing opportunities for audience members to extend the conversation in Thoughts & Prayers beyond the boundaries of the show and the theater and to work to effect change:

Arts on Site

Brunch Theatre

Cure Violence Global

Everytown for Gun Safety

The Field

Gays Against Guns

Guns Down

League of Professional Theatre Women

National Queer Theater

New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault

The Survivor's Toolbox

Team Enough

Weird Folk Fest

The Women's Environment and Development Organization


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