Dementia: a set of symptoms including decline in intellectual function, difficulties with language, simple calculations, thinking and behavior thought to be caused by plaques and tangles.
Alzheimer’s Disease: the illness most commonly associated with dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior thought to be caused by plaques and tangles.
Plaques and Tangles: Deposits of the protein fragment beta-amyloid (plaques) and twisted strands of the protein tau (tangles) that cause nerve cell damage and death in the brain.
The above definitions are provided in the program for Tangles & Plaques. It is advised that you take a look and allow yourself to soak in the information upon arrival, because that is only a small taste of what will come in the eye-opening 70 minutes to follow.
The Neo-Futurists presents TANGLES & PLAQUES
Created by Neo-Futurist Ensemble Member Kirsten Riiber and directed by Artistic Associate Jen Ellison, Tangles & Plaques aims to open a window into the experience of dementia. In addition to her work as a performance artist, Kirsten Riiber is the Activites Director at Bethany Retirement Community, which is how she first encountered memory loss in this capacity. In collaboration with the retirement home’s Memory Care Director Alex Schwaninger, Riiber interrogates the idea of a “memory’s life,” – how a memory lives, changes, and eventually departs over time.
Utilizing the typical audience participation style of the Neo-Futurists, each performance is unique, not only to that audience as a whole, but also to each individual within it. Much like a memory, the story is deeply personal, and each individual brings their own background to the performance that will impact their experience.
The goal of the piece is to help the audience begin to understand dementia, and Riiber utilizes every tool at her disposal to meet that goal – beginning with the space.
The audience enters the lobby to find chairs set up in front of a platform, and at the top of the show, Riiber and Schwaninger step up to explain the background of the piece – their relationship to Bethany Retirement Community, how long they have known each other, and the definitions of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
However, repeatedly throughout the opening statement, the lights would shut off. When they come back, the duo would start the conversation over with slight variations – certain details might be altered, or they would move to a different space in the room.
It soon becomes clear that in collaboration with Ellison, Riiber is demonstrating the life of a memory – every time we revisit a memory, it changes. At first the details may be small; however, over time, the changes grow, and when dealing with dementia, the changes become increasingly extreme until the memory dies. Only once the audience understands the life of a memory are they ready to move locations, and learn even more.
Excellent Use of Space
With dementia, the last memories to fade are those from adolescence. In order to provide a glimpse into revisiting memories in this manner, Riiber and the Neo-Futurists ensemble invite the audience into their adolescent memories – which requires a trip back to the 1990s.
Set Designer John Ross Wilson transports the Neo-Futurist theater to the world of the 90s, which is covered in bright neon, and posters with characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Full House, Hocus Pocus, and much more. There are jars on shelves throughout the space filled with “memories” which the ensemble describes as moments ranging from a first crush to eating cookies with one’s grandmother.In the center of the back wall is a flat screen television, sharing scenes from old favorites such as Princess Bride, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The opening night audience could not stop laughing, and cheers erupted with each new “throwback.”
As the play moves forward, Riiber’s story certainly darkens, and Associate Lighting Designer John Kelly’s designs help emphasize that transition. After all, dementia is a dangerous and scary topic, and Riiber’s piece is meant to describe that journey of a memory’s life. However, her choice to invite the audience into the fun of revisiting adolescence is clever, and successfully draws the crowd into the world of the play.
As much as Tangles & Plaques is informative, it is also incredibly personal, and Riiber certainly shares her truth. She explains at the beginning that she will take the audience through four Octobers, from the current one of 2017, back four years to when she first began with Bethany Retirement Community.
Over the course of the play she describes these individuals with loving detail, and paints a vivid picture of the lives that have greatly influenced the person she is today. While some of her memories are joyous, others are painful, and Riiber successfully creates an open and welcome space to share those stories.
Deeply moving and incredibly relevant, Tangles & Plaques is a story that must be shared. Riiber leads the audience through a roller coaster of emotions that is only the beginning of understanding a disease that touches so many, but so few understand. As she asks in her play, why wouldn’t we talk about it?
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: an excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through November 18, 2017
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Run Time: 70 minutes, without intermission.
5153 N. Ashland Avenue
Chicago, IL 60640
Joe Mazza Brave Lux
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.