While calling q-Staff’s newest work a play isn’t totally inaccurate, the term fails to encompass all that With Bright Spines strives for. The piece—originally slated for its premiere during Revolutions International Theatre Festival but postponed due to a conflict with q-Staff theatre’s landlords—is less a re-enactment of a script than the creation of a whole-bodied sensory experience.
The title of With Bright Spines is perhaps the most literal aspect of the work. The piece is concerned with the desert, with how its harshness has given rise to strange flora armed with needles. There’s a cruelty to it, and yet, life there persists. The actual spines of cacti are mimicked in the defenses used by “outsiders”: artists, musicians and philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza, whose name translates to “spine.”
Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish descent, is one of the few discernible characters of With Bright Spines. Lines from his writings on good and evil, nature and the divine, are woven throughout the work. It should come as no spoiler that, like most philosophers, his ideas weren’t adored by all. With Bright Spines is especially interested in both the ban of his work and its ultimate survival.
Spinoza’s biography, however, is a small part and serves only to ground the rest of the work temporally, if only for moments. q-Staff’s three main players—founders Sandy Timmerman and Richard van Schouwen, along with collaborator Bryan Jabaay—have long created theater that eschews conventional narrative, opting instead for exploring human experience through the body. Timmerman and van Schouwen studied in Poland with the theater company Gardzienice, and their work retains many hallmarks of modern avant-garde Polish theater: music, movement and stylized vocal work.
Metal tubes, accordion, banjo, bassoon, dulcimer, plates, knives and the soles of feet all fashion a texture for the action and inaction.
Surrounded by a cast of musicians—Joe Annabi, Matthew Cecil-Wolf, Bryce Hample, Marya Errin Jones and Maxwell Richardson—the three q-Staffers slink and stomp across the “stage” (not always a stage) as various “characters” (or ideas, themes, personifications). Timmerman, frequently clad in typically feminine garments (corset, evening gown), uses her body to convey strength and resistance before morphing into vulnerability and then into something else entirely. The juxtaposition of lace and knives is compelling—must she, as a woman, be the strongest and with the sharpest spines to survive at all?
Jabaay cartwheels through, appearing for a time as Spinoza. Other times he crouches, vulture-like, spinning a waterwheel-percussion contraption before springing up, his long body an exclamation point. van Schouwen, the director, is a heavy presence. In the small room, his voice is stentorian, his body poised as an authority demanding attention.
Framing the movement is surprising and moving music. Metal tubes, accordion, banjo, bassoon, dulcimer, plates, knives and the soles of feet all fashion a texture for the action and inaction. This is where it’s possible to create a spoiler, as often the musical connections and arrangements are what engages and astounds. One particular moment finds Jones and Timmerman, the sole women in the piece, circling each other in a dance and song duet, their alto voices intertwining only to spin off into a harmony and counterpoint that would make Bach proud. It was so, so good.
Along with the music, the lighting and set design are frequently brilliant. The q-Staff theatre space (now in its last days before a May move to a Downtown warehouse) is small, so the construction of the levels is especially ingenious. As part of the work, players move sandbags and floors, revealing new spaces in which to move. The why of the moving isn’t always clear. Hell, it’s almost never clear, but it is always stunning.
Ultimately, that observation could serve to sum up all of With Bright Spines. It’s a piece that, despite a few humorous elements, takes itself seriously, and it demands that you do the same. If you are able to do this, and are willing to suspend a desire for conventional meaning, then With Bright Spines is a singular, sensorial experience. It satisfies not with answers but with an awesome display of the potential of creativity.