Constellation Theater’s ‘Mysticism & Music’ Isn’t Going Anywhere

Mysticism & Music, currently playing at the Constellation Theater Company, is a show that doesn’t work. Despite the undeniably engaging music from the songwriting team of Chao Tian (an extremely focused Chinese dulcimer player) and Tom Teasley (a world-class percussionist) and despite the stubborn enthusiasm of the cast, the production doesn’t work.

Scene from ‘Mysticism & Music.’ Photo: Constellation Theatre.

The storyline does not lack depth. The text consists of meditations and other thoughts of recognized wise and spiritual people and ancient and timeless sacred texts. Some of the sources included are Tao Te Ching, The Book of Job, Genesis, The Bhagavad Gita, Martin Luther King, Toni Morrison, Thich Nach Hahn. Under the direction of Allison Arkell Stockman, the performance consists of these texts glued together and illustrated by choreographic images of changing body shapes (Choreography: Tony Thomas II) which are enveloped and swimming in the middle of colored fabrics (Costumes, Fabric, and Fan Designer: Frank Labovitz; Property Designer: George “Tommy” Wang). But the show is going nowhere.

The show has no plot, which wouldn’t be a problem if the accompanying ritual of movement and sound were enough to connect the audience’s consciousness with the text, the performers and the other spectators. But in this case, it is not.

Here is an example of how this connection fails:

At one point, the actors toss imaginary objects between them as the text is spoken. This is a classic acting exercise that anyone in an improv class has done. It is used to connect performers to each other and to focus their attention. Ideally, the concentration of performers is such that the viewing audience also “sees” the object being exchanged. In this production, however, the actors never seem to quite “see” the imaginary object. The receiver often seems to lose the object halfway through its journey. The object’s arrival at its destination—inevitably in the proper size, shape, and weight—is underscored by a punchy emphasis. Then we, the public, accept that the object is presumed to have arrived. But we don’t quite believe the journey he is supposed to have made. It’s emblematic of what – for me – happens with all production. We hear these profound statements about our humanity. But we don’t really see, feel or believe how they are supposed to be connected to us in our current context.

For the most part, I never felt the performers connected to what they were saying or doing. The notable exception to this was the very first moment of the show in which the performers read responses the audience had written to the prompt: “In the past 18 months, I’ve lost or missed ____________.” This moment was clear. Audience and performers agreed on the source and purpose of the text and what it meant for it to be shared in this space. This understanding was not present with other texts that were shared during the performance.

Similarly, the public was provided with a rhythmic egg (egg shaker) to participate in certain moments of percussion with the performers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clearly stated when those times should be. It wasn’t disastrous. It was, however, an opportunity to connect that went unfulfilled and another example of what was wrong with the production.

AJ Guban’s set is aesthetically pleasing, engaging, and thoughtful to watch. It consists of a long platform set against a textured neutral colored wall. The wall is punctuated by a series of discretely embedded entrances/exits. The wall and platform span the entire backstage area. Surrounded by a low wall in front of this platform is the orchestra pit in which the two musicians are seen and heard throughout the performance.

Musician-songwriters Tom Teasley and Chao Tian in “Mysticism & Music”. Photo: Constellation Theatre.

The atmosphere of the space was warm, welcoming and cohesive on this autumn evening. It provided a welcome respite from the neon-and-siren awash hubbub of the 14th and U Street hallway outside the theater doors.

I was grateful that the speaking voice and the percussion were not at war with each other in this production. This is largely due to the quiet and flawless work of sound engineer Gordon Nimmo-Smith.

The actors were endearing to watch and hear. I look forward to the next effort from everyone involved in this production.

Duration: approximately 80 minutes without intermission

Mysticism & Music can be viewed in person or on request. In-person performances will run through November 7, 2021 at CulturalDC’s Source Theater, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC (between 14 and T). In-person tickets cost between $10 and $49 plus fees. Video-on-demand is available November 2-21, 2021. Customers who purchase a video-on-demand ticket will receive a link to stream the filmed production anytime during the virtual race. Customers will have a 72-hour window to enjoy the show. Video-on-demand tickets are $20 per household plus fees. Tickets for in-person or streaming can be purchased by calling the box office at (202) 204-7741 or in line.

COVID SEATS: A limited number of $10 tickets for each in-person performance are available for those who have been financially impacted by the pandemic. Call the box office or visit our website to purchase. Additional charges apply.

DISCOUNTED TICKETS: Constellation will be giving away a pair of free tickets for each in-person performance using a digital lottery, which can be entered on our website 48 hours before each performance. Groups of 4 or more are entitled to a 25% discount on regular priced tickets. First responders, active/retired military personnel, teachers and students are entitled to a 50% discount on regular priced tickets. Additional charges apply. Please visit ConstellationTheatre.org/special-offers for more information.

COVID-19 SAFETY PLAN: All in-person audiences are required to provide proof of vaccination at the door and wear masks for the duration of the performance. For a complete overview of Constellation Theater Company policies, visit ConstellationTheatre.org/covid-safety-plan.

CREDITS

Mysticism & Music
based on a concept by Tom Teasley, Chao Tian, ​​Nick Martin, AJ Guban and Allison Arkell Stockman

Music composed and performed live by
Tom Teasley
Chao Tian

With
John Austin
Nathalie Cutcher
Momo Nakamura
Nia Savoy – Dock
Deidre Staples
Jacob Yeh

Creative team
Director: Allison Arkell Stockman
Choreographer: Tony Thomas II
Scenographic and lighting designer: AJ Guban
Musician and composer: Tom Teasley
Musician and composer: Chao Tian
Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz
Property Designer: George “Tommy” Wang
Sound engineer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith
Script Supervisor: Nick Martin
Production Manager: Katie Moshier

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