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Dementia Drama

June 4, 2011

Sometimes the reasons for experiencing a work of art can seem a bit random. But there's nothing wrong with that.

I was in Los Angeles and at a loose end last night. Of the thousands of cultural activities I could have spent part of the evening doing, I opted for At Sundown, a physical theatre exploration by the small theatre company Son of Semele of how memory loss and associated forms of dementia in elderly people affect the individuals and those around them.

I was drawn to the production for several reasons.

Firstly, I have enjoyed work undertaken by Ian Garrett, who originated the idea for At Sundown and co-designed and produced the show, in the past. I blogged about The Gogol Project, which he was closely involved with and which I had the pleasure of seeing on a trip to LA about two years ago, here.

Secondly, I was curious about the producing company, Son of Semele, which occupies an intriguing, out of the way, black box space on the corner of a dog-eared corner of Beverly Boulevard.

Thirdly, I have a close friend whose father and uncle are suffering from Alzheimers. I thought the production might help me gain some small insight into my friend's life as a caregiver.

The thoughtful show, which was seen at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, went by in a flash. It was as if an entire lifetime was compressed into a high-pressure cooker as the three performers acted out stylized versions of routine motions associated with everyday life such as eating meals, rolling up shirtsleeves and buttoning down blouses. The machine-like feeling to their movements made those everyday actions seem completely alien and divorced from normality.

At the same time, the three sections where the actors took it in turns to lecture the audience on the medical research that currently exists around the issue of dementia, completely normalized and almost trivialized the illness.

The push-pull between the feeling of alienation and normalization created a powerful impact in the compressed performance space.

Passages of bittersweet humor, such as when the performers took it in turns to embody an elderly person struggling to remember the details of their lives, lightened the mood and add to the overall poignancy of the work. In one of my favorite beats, two actors did a lively, rhythmic song and dance routine around memorizing the 50 United States.

Despite the production's slight silly side, the overarching feeling by the end of the show was of the blankness and darkness that exists at the center of people's lives when they no longer have the full power of their senses and the impact of this nothingness on those that love them.

The production was only 40 minutes long, but it's safe to say that I came out of the theatre feeling slightly wiser and more tuned-into the emotional side of dealing with of memory loss as a result of the company's efforts. It would be interesting to see how the collaborators might develop their ideas further.

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