In 1915 Edgar Lee Masters published his poetic masterwork Spoon River Anthology which used the made-up epitaphs from village tombstones to expose a town’s hypocrisies. It was a shocker in its day when small town American life was thought to be sacrosanct.
Whether or not Tracy Weller’s Hart Island directly harkens back to Masters, it certainly has similarities, most particularly in its poetically rendered revelations of the underbelly of life and death. Weller turns Hart Island, impeccably rendered in Christopher & Justin Swader’s set occupying most of The Gym at Judson, into a dark metaphor revealing more than any statistics or headlines could ever do about existence during the Covid pandemic.
Hart Island is where the bodies of indigent and anonymous people wind up, usually buried by prisoner work details from nearby Riker’s Island. Of course, during the last two years Hart Island’s necropolis has burgeoned both in reality and in Weller’s imagination as fertile in this time as Masters’ was in his.
Weller herself takes on the role of Narrator in the persona of a twitchy voice-over artist hired to put down informative tracks for a travelogue ostensibly about the islands of New York City harbor, clips of which are projected across the back wall of The Gym. The story she tells begins as the earth cools, continents float about and islands form as Manhattan oozes away from the mainland. As she frets over her performance, isolated in a tiny soundproof booth, ghostly figures appear and speak in counterpoint to her non-stop flow of nonsensical information.
M.R. (Nora Cole), G.D. (Julie Asriyan), A.E. (Jimmy Crowell II), H.T. (James Foster Jr.), N.E. (Daniel Kublick) and R.I. (David Samuel) each eloquently murmur their remembrances, made even more eloquent by the very ordinariness of each of these characters as dressed by Natalie Loveland.
One is a health aide trying to remain detached. Another has memories that have followed her for decades. Another has latched onto the image of a bird while another can’t escape guilt. One is a gravedigger. Several dig amongst the detritus left behind by previous gravediggers in futile efforts to seek loved ones.
The softly murmured lines, the silences, the eerie hints of music and the emotionally lucid acting (so real it doesn’t seem to be acting at all) combine with Christina Tang’s moody lighting, the overwhelming scenic design, and Yana Biryukova’s video & projection design to produce a profound meditation—in 75 minutes—on what New York City and the rest of the world has gone through in the past few years: a spectrum of emotion from abject grief to acceptance.
Kristjan Thor’s direction somehow makes all the disparate parts flow smoothly and expressively into a pensive whole.
Here Hart Island isn’t just a place but a state of mind, a meditation.
Hart Island (March 8 – April 9, 2022)
The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.masonholdings.org
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission