The Funny Fear of Loneliness: ‘Phantasmagoria’ world premiere by Cutting Ball / Mugwumpin / Bay Area Theatre Cypher

“Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
– Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Watching Phantasmagoria – the newly-filmed collaboration between theatre troupes Cutting Ball, Mugwumpin, and Bay Area Theatre Cypher – I was reminded, of all things, about those nerdy questions people have about Ghostbusters. The ones that ask about why you’d trap the ghosts when that essentially condemning them to an eternity worse than death.

Ghostie (Akaina Ghosh) and Ghosty (Maria Marquis) finally see eye-to-eye, sort of. (Cutting Ball Theater)

I’m hoping you can see why it came to mind as I watched the new piece, for which the “plot” involves two ghosts (Akaina Ghosh and Maria Marquis) trapped in identical confines that resemble plywood-paneled walls. They try communicating with one another through tin cans on strings. It doesn’t always work – with their speech often sounding like The Sims or the adults in Peanuts specials – but they do make a connection.

In-between their exchanges, we see a series of musical vignettes by Asian-American vocalists (Carlos Aguirre, Phil Wong, May Ramos) and by oddly-dressed creatures walking the streets of San Francisco. And we keep coming back to our ghosts in their rooms. Their speech becomes clearer and they have the ability to see one another. For how long? For what purpose?

After a year-plus of pandemic shut-ins, would a lack of an answer be more or less surprising than an actual answer?

A year ago, Cutting Ball was on the verge of premiering Marissa Skudlarek’s modern adaptation of Cyrano. Now, the experimental company is once again exploring the limits of our Zoom-screened reality by centering its latest production on a pair of literal ghosts within the machine. For what have we all become if not exhausted shadows of our former selves, spending so much time doing the same thing that it all begins to sound like gibberish? Doesn’t a simple treat like a floating cookie (yes, that’s a thing in this piece) provide at least the briefest reprieve from the banal?

Bay Area Theatre Cypher’s Carlos Aguirre (both) looks to himself for answers. (Bay Area Theatre Cypher)

Phantasmagoria was meant to exist in the here and now of our pandemic life. That includes the even ugly parts of anti-Asian hate that have plagued both my hometown of SF and the nation as a whole. The aforementioned vocalists from Bay Area Theatre Cypher give literal face and voice to a community which has spent the last year receiving the same violent hate that plagued Arab-Americans for the past 20 years – neither of which was new, and that’s a problem.

Meanwhile, the creators of Mugwumpin have their oddball creations walk the streets of our fair city to mirror the way we masked folk (ie. those of us who actually care about the health and safety of others) have gotten accustomed to identifying one another on the street by swagger and stitching, in lieu of smiles. The most striking thing about these sequences isn’t how many bystanders focus on the costumed folks, it’s how many don’t. What’s surprising these days?

Big Pink of Mugwumpin venturing out in a mask. (Julie Schuchard)

All of this works to Phantasmagoria’s benefit, which makes the underlying problem that much more of an irritant: the three projects don’t really work together. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all good and well-edited together by Cutting Ball’s Gwen Park. What’s more, they all perfectly illustrate a vital reality of SF pandemic existence. They just don’t fit together – they come off as three independently-made projects spliced together Frankenstein-style, with Cutting Ball’s ghost story meant to be thread holding them all together.

Even at an incredibly brisk 50-min. runtime, the disparate nature of the three projects makes it feel incomplete. Perhaps if it had been done as a proper triptych, it would have served the project better. As it stands, Phantasmagoria is exemplary of three beautiful lenses of different colors coming together to obscure the image on which they’re focused.

GRADE:                                             B

Phantasmagoria is scheduled to stream until the 23rd of May on the Cutting Ball website.
The film runs 50 minutes with no intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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