Like most others, I have emotional and sensitive reactions to certain objects, especially those that capture the fondness of my childhood. I try to discern what moments I have with these objects: lying in the park with a Capri Sun after playing tag, dancing in my living room to Enya, posing in my mother’s red leather jacket so I could feel like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But experts say that the way we recall our memories is not through an exact playback of our most treasured moments but through a rebuilt version of that memory. When our brain consciously registers a memory, this is called encoding. It makes me wonder if what I hold so near and dear is actually as it was.
For those with loved ones suffering from dementia, explaining the pain and confusion experienced as a result of this group of conditions can be challenging. Show creator Kirsten Riiber and Alex Schwaninger, memory care director at the local Bethany Retirement Community, open “Tangles & Plaques” by explaining the premise of the show, then demonstrate the experience of dementia through repetitive and poignant performance.
The transition of audience members from one room, where we are introduced to the concept of the show, to the “Memory Bunker” creates a magical, blast-to-the-past. Those who grew up in the nineties are immediately charmed by the decor, references and group activities the actors perform on stage to simulate some of the very same activities dementia patients engage in. And yet, the stories are presented with such love and balanced enthusiasm by Riiber and the ensemble (Kaitlyn Andrews, Ida Cuttler, Justin Deming, Mike Hamilton, Nick Hart and Dan Kerr-Hobert) that it allows for every audience member to become invested.
In the first half of the show, there is an organized chaos that fits puzzle perfect with the scattered thinking of a child. In the second half of the show, this organized chaos is juxtaposed with the pure fear and unorganized chaos that can sometimes occur for patients with dementia. Showing these sides, both the opportunity to recall good memories and be happy and how the loss of memories can deteriorate a person from the inside out, is powerful in itself.
The ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine, responding to one another and picking up on every cue. More importantly, they connect with the audience through actual interactions every step of the way, sharing their charisma as a volunteer might with a patient.
Combined with Jen Ellison’s apt direction, John Wilson’s nostalgic and delightful set and a strong and cohesive ensemble, the production is able to not only achieve its goal of “demystifying” the experience of this affliction but also connect with the audience in a personal yet painstakingly artful way. (Danielle Levsky)
The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 North Ashland, (773)275-5255, neofuturists.org, $10-$25. Through November 18.