At least in a broad sense, the exact tone you might expect from “The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem” is perfectly broadcast via its cryptic title—deliberately indecipherable, inexplicably compelling, and completely out of the ordinary. The play is being presented at the Voxel Theatre through their innovative artist residency program and was produced by The Acme Corporation, an experimental theatre company known for its eccentric sensibility. If you have similarly adventurous sensibilities as a theatre goer, then you’re unlikely to be disappointed by this genuinely challenging and rewarding new show. That is, as long as you don’t come expecting that you’ll find out what that problem is, why the lights went out, or anything else of the sort.
…genuinely challenging and rewarding new show…the conceptual boldness, technical excellence, and bizarre beauty of this piece all add up to make it one operatic experiment that you shouldn’t miss your chance to discover for yourself.
As opposed to a conventional show from which you could reasonably expect this kind of concrete plot, “The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem” is something that the creators identify via a subtitle as something called a “found opera.” Only a small part of the work was actually written by Lola B. Pierson, its primary creator, and the rest she simply assembled from various existing materials, creating a kind of theatrical collage.
In a lengthy list of sources that can be found in the show’s program, you’ll find inspirations that vary from well-known texts by renowned artists and intellectuals, to directions from handbooks and warning labels, and notices from our city’s department of transportation. You’ll also find some identified not by name but through phrases like “the little girl from the YouTube video” or “the reverend who spoke at Will’s funeral.”
What makes this found opera an opera is that all these “words” are set to an original score by Allison Clendaniel. I could try to explain all of its haunting and unique qualities or you can take a quick listen to a short sample through the show’s website to get a sense of the otherworldly musicality that electrifies this piece.
More likely than not, you’ll recognize at least a few of the snippets Pierson has found. These include classic literature, pop culture, or even other works of theatre, with recognizable quotations from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” both featured prominently.
It’s certainly possible that Pierson was trying to convey a specific message through these selections and in her method of arranging these various “found” materials. The meaning is also certainly not obvious, to the extent that I would hesitate to suggest that there is necessarily a specific meaning to be found. Though that leaves me wondering a bit as to the “why” behind this piece, you’ll likely still find plenty with which to be fascinated, entertained, or even amazed in this untraditional opera.
Her expertise—and that of her directorial partner Jarod Hanson—are pretty clearly visible in just how well all these disparate and disjointed pieces come together into a cohesive whole. Also of note is that the piece was developed over a three-year rehearsal period, which likely played a part in how well everything congealed.
Equally impressive and thought-provoking was Pierson’s multi-level set, covered in canvas and cast in earth tones that had an almost post-apocalyptic feel. This sparse but distinct aesthetic carries through to the props, co-designed by Hanson and Kateri Pelton, and to subtle, but evocative, costumes designed by Kitt Crescenko. Every piece of the show’s blocking and choreography was tight and measured, with the cast seeming to move as one well-oiled machine.
You can’t help but be awestruck by the level of talent in the ensemble. Since the fact that only one cast member had a distinct and consistent character throughout makes it difficult to comment on specific actors, so I will have to say that Kaya Vision, Britt Olsen-Ecker, Molly Margulies, Jem Creutzer, Alix Fenhagen, Megan Livingston, Hailey Withrow, Meghan Stanton, and Heather Morrison all prove to be remarkably gifted performers who are more than capable of handling the show’s complex demands—vocally, physically, and emotionally.
Lighting design by Eric Nightengale and sound design by Charles Coes ensure the action is cleanly illuminated and that the show’s soundscape is crisply rendered. If you do happen to have trouble making out a line, all you’ll have to do is shift your attention above the stage, where everything spoken by the actors is reflected via supertitles on two large screens. Judging by a cheeky pre-show message on the screens, the supertitles were there to emphasize that this was an opera with all the conventions, importance, and bombast that that implies. While a touch more clarity on what was being conveyed may have elevated the work even further, there’s also something interesting about a show that allows each audience member to intuit their own from the implied connections between the show’s score, staging, and libretto.
For instance, what stood out to me was the way in which certain juxtapositions highlighted the mechanistic nature of the human body—the way in which our physical selves are a machine as subject to breakdown as might be a simple clock. Directly or not, the show does seem to be getting at some quite profound ideas about mortality, community, and transcendence that may well strike an emotional chord with many viewers. Whether you “get it” or not, the conceptual boldness, technical excellence, and bizarre beauty of this piece all add up to make it one operatic experiment that you shouldn’t miss your chance to discover for yourself.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and five minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Contains a naming of (but not a depiction of) a sexual assault (i.e. the word “rape” is used).
“The Lights Went Out Because of a Problem” runs through December 17, 2023 presented by The Acme Corporation at The Voxel, 9 W 25th St, Baltimore, MD 21218. Fore more information and to purchase tickets, go online. Masks are required for audience members. Performers will be unmasked.