It starts with a rock. A rock that has been worn and shaped by time. A rock that has seen a thousand lifetimes or more.
In Thomas Riccio's (w)Hole, a world premiere performance installation by the Dead White Zombies in their 36,000 square-foot former welding shop in West Dallas, a single story of two lovers is forced through a portal, a prism, to reflect the many iterations of their lives. And like with life, how the story is told is fully dependent on the choices one makes in how they view it.
Drawing from Hindu cosmology, a simple introduction and the gifting of a rock begins the journey. Immediately, the uniqueness of the piece is evident as the audience is led away from the small introductory space into a small offshoot of the vast warehouse to a scene between two lovers, separated at the fall of Troy.
But once this brief context is provided—they are searching for each other through time and space—the audience turns to find the space, formerly dark, lit up. The action naturally draws to a scene between a man and a woman in a caged in living room set. And what commences is a cleverly plotted journey.
For once this third scene plays out for a moment, another performer comes to light in the distance and begins her own scene. The audience is naturally drawn to her. But almost as soon as they can get there, the focus shifts again. And again. And again. And again.
Soon, several scenes are playing out around the audience, and yet, there is still a sense of direction, of leading. It's carefully orchestrated and builds a foundation for the most fun part of the evening.
Eventually, the audience makes its way into a part of the warehouse previously closed. The woman who'd given the introduction, and the gift of the rocks, gives a fairly conclusive monologue that ends by highlighting a pile of rocks, which the audience is encouraged to leaves theirs in when ready.
But, it's not over. Instead, the audience is now truly introduced to the presence of their own free will. Performances, small scenes, lonely repetitive penances continue to play out all around and the audience has the power to control the narrative being created.
Introducing a strong element of play to the audience, there are still unexplored areas worthy of investigation, but formerly visited areas are alive again with new performances as well. And while the construction of the events may appear somewhat random, there's actually an intricate orchestration being conducted by Riccio ensuring that no matter which adventure, which story is chosen, the story similarly builds into a singular crescendo.
And if that weren't innovative enough, the performers, billed as zombies, engage the audience members who happen into their spaces, and still others who are sought out. All of this can be at once unnerving and exhilarating, which is how the evening itself can accurately be described.
The cast includes David Goodwin, Lori McCarty, Brad Hennigan, Ben Miro, Justin Locklear, Stephanie Cleghorn, Jelena Princeza, Abel Flores, Michael Cleveland, John-Michael Colgin, Jennifer Culver, Catherine Culver, Raven McCarthy, Jameshia Bankston, Amrita Ranchod, Hannah Weir, David Powers and Danielle Georgiou; the design team Scot Gresham-Lancaster, Dale Seeds, Jeff Stover, Mona Kasra, Frank DuFour, Danielle Georgiou, Annell Brodeur and Katie Nowacki.
The level of dedication in the performance is beyond that which most will have seen as there is no simple role and often the performers are required not only to deliver emotionally striking material, but even infuse their own personal experiences into the performances in a sometimes scripted, sometimes improvisational confessional of sorts. It's cathartic not just as a story, but for those who are there to take it in.
(w)Hole is not pretty nor traditional because there is nothing pretty and traditional about life. And because of that, the entire experience of theater is turned on its head, spilled out, and spread across a cavernous space where exploration and free will are gateways to a fantastical journey that is joyful, painful, enlightening, frightening, narrow and wide. Much like life and its endless cycles. And back to the rock, which is its own personification of earthbound life.
When the journey is over, when you've come to peace, come to a conclusion; put your rock in the pile, and move on.
◊ In the interest of disclosure, Kris Noteboom is a student in the Arts and Humanities division at the University of Texas at Dallas, with a focus on Aesthetic Studies. This semester, he is in a playwriting course taught by Riccio.