“The theater digests and incorporates its prey,” says the press release for Psychic Self Defense, the fall production of HERE’s Dream Music Puppetry program, conceived, designed, and directed by Normandy Sherwood. Psychic Self Defense falls as loosely and as hallucinogenically under the rubric of puppetry as it does under the rubric of theater, dance, ritual, or haunted house. It’s a visual and sonic experience that describes itself as “a séance, a sculpture, and a live-action screen saver,” and while the latter is perhaps the most technically accurate, it’s to your laptop what the Great Barrier Reef is to your home aquarium: bigger, brighter, weirder, and tapping into odd depths inside your mind. (I can’t say “emotional depths,” exactly, because it’s not trying to induce specific reactions, but some very unusual things happened in my psyche while I was in that room.) The show is virtually wordless, entirely lacking in narrative, and proceeds by dream logic to a place I’m not sure I can even describe, let alone explain.
You enter Psychic Self Defense through a velvet rope at a secret back door to HERE, and proceed through corridors hung with fabric led by a figure draped in black [I pause to note here that autocorrect changed my typo on “draped” to “deathbed,” which feels somehow relevant], who evokes insect, shaman, witch, Victorian widow, and furniture all at once. She pauses at one point to ring a handbell. The sheer black draperies also, of course, evoke curtains, as does the fabric that lines the pathways throughout, and curtains (designed by Sherwood) will be the recurring structural element: theatrical (often installed in a set of nested miniature prosceniums), shower, window, and otherwise; of a multiplicity of fabrics ranging from the traditional draped red velvet to gold lamé to pop-art florals (which sometimes absorb the performers) to translucent drapes of all colors to metallic spangles like dragon’s scales. In niches and installations as you enter, crystal balls glow in sculpted hands–again, motifs that will recur. A soundscape (by Craig Flanagin) that hovers between ancient choral music and the brain spasms of tinnitus fills the air, and when you take your seat you gaze at a gold curtain that after a while starts to seem like a magic eye puzzle with hidden 3D shapes. (Audience members are led into the space in groups of six, so depending on what group you’re in, you might have a little while to gaze at it.)
The show begins in a vaguely domestic setting, with a gentleman in lightly archaic garb (Ean Sheehy) sitting in what could be a lightly sketched living room–an armchair, a plant. He utters the play’s only line of dialogue: he is practicing the art of psychic self defense. Then he sends all his furnishings to disappear into the curtain with the wave of a hand, and everything gets weirder. The pattern will recur later, when a woman (Nikki Calonge), likewise looking slightly ike a person from another era, with a giant hand-held magnifying glass, utters the same line, and then also gets sucked into the psychic underworld of the piece.
I could keep describing the visual elements all night and never really capture the experience: Tiny prosceniums inside tiny prosceniums with even tinier rugs. Gloved hands turning themselves into puppets. Animated projections on layers of gauze. Recurring motifs of flowers and hands and orbs; of layers of transparency; of being swallowed or absorbed by fabrics. People in bright, elaborate costumes that sometimes resemble furniture or lamps or whirling dervishes or dream animals with odd numbers of limbs. A giant spangled maw/portal with a giant velvet tongue. Glittering shrouded figures of both menace and wonder. There’s a vaguely Victorian air to bits of it: the swagged red curtains and frills; the figures that could be women in widow’s weeds; the giant magnifying glass and brocades and tapestries. But there’s also a trippy psychedelia strain running through, with popping pinks and oranges, and a bit of B horror with the smothering fabrics and figures turned into shadows that would be more menacing if they didn’t come draped in glittering gold. (Christina Tang’s lighting enhances both the beauty and the menace throughout.)
Beyond even the sheer magical weirdness of what you’re seeing, the experience puts viewers in a state of mind that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in the theater before; my brain disgorged thoughts and went places while hypnotized, mesmerized, and/or bemused by it that made me consider whether there were legitimately hallucinogens in the air ducts. The whole possessed dreamscape comes from the mind of Normandy Sherwood, and while I can’t say I understood the show on any level expressible in words, I also can’t deny it tapped into something primal and pure. Sherwood writes, “My hope is that this playfully abstract and richly sensory experience creates a social space for audiences to reflect on, cultivate, and experiment with their own attention.” There is no question that Psychic Self Defense does exactly that.