Anna Kohler plays with sensations in ‘Mytho? Lure of Wildness’

Posted on October 12, 2016 by Sharon Lacey

“It’s a tender portrait of a scary thing,” says Anna Kohler, describing her latest theatrical project, Mytho? Lure of Wildness. Kohler’s play explores the fearsome reality of getting old, in particular how aging transforms beauty and affects the senses: “It’s so easy for us to be sensuous beings when we’re young, but what happens to sensuousness when we are old? To the skin? To the way that people perceive us, to our own image of ourselves?”

In this production, which is directed by Caleb Hammond and funded by the first grant from the Fay Chandler Faculty Creativity Seed Fund, Kohler uses a range of avant-garde performance techniques and emerging technologies to create an immersive environment designed to bombard the senses. Kohler says the piece allows her “to play with sensations like facets on a jewel.”

Set in a famous painter’s studio, the models who inhabit this luscious bohemia become archetypes for all women, who become social pariahs merely for aging. Kohler, who was herself an artist’s model at La Grande Chaumière, the oldest painting academy in Paris, drew on personal experience to conjure her vision. However, as the word “mytho”—which means tall tales, or a person prone to fantasy and exaggeration—implies, this multisensory production also immerses the audience in fictional flights of fancy. Mytho? is punctuated with references to Bresson films, Matisse paintings and the Mediterranean world of such artists.

The first half of the play recounts the visual discoveries of a famous painter, inspired by Matisse. The painter is portrayed by Hapi Phace, a stalwart in New York’s downtown theatre scene in the early eighties, known for his performances at the famed Pyramid Club in the East Village. The artist’s models are portrayed by New York-based actors Alenka Kraigher and Katiana Rangel. A number of MIT students and alumni also are involved in the play. French students will use their language skills on stage to create the atmosphere of a Parisian café. Adam Strandberg ’14, Course 8, who is quite a presence in theater at MIT, will make his New York debut with this production.

In the second half of the play, Kohler says, painting becomes a “baseline,” for interrelated vignettes. The painter paints, amidst a flurry of activity—belly dancing, Cors tango and other staged impressions that blur the lines between live action and video. Kohler says she strives to make the theatrical experience a lot like the experience of looking at a painting; instead of being preoccupied with narrative content, she wants the audience to engage at a sensory level.

She has assembled a masterful technical crew, who will use some of the latest technology to conjure the multisensory aspects of the play. Cyrano, a device created by David Edwards, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University and Founder of Le Laboratoire, delivers custom smells that can be cued in the same manner as lights and audio and makes it possible to surround the audience with the aromas of Morocco, Paris and the South of France. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is an audio technology that triggers sensory experiences with aural stimulation by piping sound directly into the audience’s ears. Video artists Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty, who specialize in using live elements within their video work, will incorporate real time video editing into some scenes. During the performance, actors even make drinks to serve the audience.

Kohler explains, “I really want the audience to be immersed completely, but in a way that is not traditionally audience participation, by making them have to do something. They just are there, and everything’s going to come to them. And the desired effect ranges from goosebumps to involvement.”

Mytho? premieres at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre on October 28-29 (tickets available here) before its New York premiere at Abrons Art Center from December 9-22.