The inaugural work of the Flying Anvil Theatre's Hammer Ensemble is effective as a call to social action and admirable in its message, but the production could benefit from some additional polishing. The Pall: In the Shadows of Human Trafficking is a devised theatre piece created through a multi-artist collaborative process with a final text generated by the ensemble's director John Ferguson and playwright Linda Parsons. Through a series of interwoven vignettes and scenes, the production highlights the enormity and pervasiveness of human trafficking in our region.
Before all else it must be said that this piece is insightful, compassionate, and effective in accomplishing the ensemble's stated purpose of creating performances that, "can be used to highlight [a partner organization's] particular mission, function, fundraiser, or event". I know this for certain because at the end of the night, after the show's fourth-wall-shattering appeal for donations and subsequent talk-back session, I watched as multiple audience members were moved enough to reach for their wallets or start cutting checks. There are few concrete metrics for success more clear than your audience's financial support. And thanks to a donation by Natalie Haslam, the Hammer Ensemble will contribute 100% of the proceeds to their partner organization: Freedom 4/24, a regional group that supports victims of human trafficking. In this way, it is hard to argue that the evening was anything other than a clear success.
Still, for a group of artists as talented as the veteran crew Flying Anvil has assembled, the final product felt a bit rushed. With any devised work, having more than ample time for experimentation, discussion, script development, and rehearsal is key. And while there was certainly nothing on stage that could qualify as a mis-step, several of the more highly choreographed sequences would have benefited from additional attention to detail, and certain segments seemed to lack a clear authorial voice. I could not help but wonder if, in endeavoring to mount this production to coincide with Freedom 4/24's annual fundraiser, the artists were forced to abandon fine tuning certain moments in order to include others that they felt were crucial to their message. To be sure, the scope of the problem is so large that crafting an artistic vehicle capable of touching on all of the worthwhile issues must have been a very daunting task.
Structurally the piece shifts between minimalist naturalism and outright surrealism as it relates the experiences of human trafficking victims based on their actual accounts. The production is touted as an unflinching look at this horrific problem, but ultimately I was left feeling like the show's powerful naturalistic segments consistently lead the audience right up to the very edge of truly shocking real life scenarios only to then retreat into prosaic asides or heavily symbolic surrealism. I certainly understand the artistic team's concern with offending the sensibilities of Knoxville audiences, but I would encourage them to bear in mind that anyone attending such an event comes fully prepared for a night of challenging, difficult, maybe even infuriating theatre. And with such a talented lineup of artists at their disposal, the potential to create deeply affecting, unsettling, and truthful artwork seems limited only by what they are willing to trust their audiences to handle. I believe we can handle more.
Of course, these aesthetic criticisms are quite secondary to the successful fulfillment of the ensemble's mission to raise awareness for an incredibly worthy cause. And what's more, from an artistic standpoint there was plenty that worked very well in this production. Firstly, the nine artists comprising the ensemble - most of whom will be familiar to local theatre goers - are all clearly skilled performers. All are fiercely dedicated to their portrayals, many of which required lightning fast transitions of character, perspective, and physicality. These changes were so frequently and comprehensively achieved throughout the night that the overall effect became like a twisted hall of mirrors where the faces of trusted friends and family suddenly and inexplicably morphed into vicious alien masks. The central symbolic device: a large mesh fabric that ensnares victims of the Pall, is incorporated in several interesting ways throughout the show and is very effective at generating a number of haunting stage pictures. Most disturbing of all were the disjointed mockeries of childhood nursery rhymes and snatches of old circus tunes juxtaposed against a surrealistic nightmare sequence portraying the sale of children into sexual slavery. These are just a few of the images that are sure to linger in the minds of anyone who was in attendance.
In the end, The Pall left me wanting more. And that's not a bad thing. I want more information about the scope of this problem plaguing our community. I want more awareness brought to the issue of human trafficking. I want more support given to organizations like Freedom 4/24 working to combat the problem. And I definitely want more of the exploratory, risk-taking, and socially conscious theatre that the Hammer Ensemble is dedicated to bringing to Knoxville.
The Pall runs through Tuesday Jan 23. Cash or check donations are accepted at the door.