Thursday, January 18, 2018

PuSh 2018: Reassembled, Slightly Askew at The Cultch

Reassembled, Slightly Askew, playing at The Cultch's Culture Lab as part of this year's PuSh Festival, is a cross between a radio play and an immersive sound installation. It is based on writer Shannon Yee's personal experience with a life-threatening medical emergency, her recovery, and the acquired brain injury that resulted.

SPOILER ALERT!!!: Do not read any further if you are planning to see the show.

The piece is divided into two distinct, though related, parts. In the first, eight audience members (the maximum capacity for the show) are greeted in The Cultch's lobby by a docent dressed in hospital scrubs. He asks us to fill out an admitting form (really, an audience survey for the production team), affixes each of us with a plastic bracelet, and explains the concept and performance parameters of the piece. Then he leads us into the Culture Lab, where we are told to remove our coats and shoes (and glasses should, like me, we wear them), and to climb into an empty hospital bed. This man then affixes each of us with a pair of eyeshades and headphones. What follows is a 50-minute acoustic journey inside Shannon's brain as she reconstructs her memories of her near-death experience as a result of a cranial hematoma, the painful nine-week hospital stay to treat resulting infections and rehabilitate compromised sensory-motor functions, and, finally, the slow process of readjusting to the world and a new disability once she is released.

Along the way, we hear not only Shannon's voice, but also the different voices speaking at her, including: her worried partner, Gronya; her attending physician; a succession of nurses trying to find a vein to insert an IV drip or from which to draw blood; and a concerned neuropsychologist who is key to climactic breakthrough in Shannon's post-release therapy. We also hear the voice(s) inside Shannon's head as she struggles to understand what is happening to her, and as she chastises herself for the slowness of her recovery. In essence, during these moments Shannon is having a conversation with her own brain, which for all intents and purposes becomes another character in the piece--and which for much of the piece is, physiologically speaking, partially exposed due to a recurrence of abscesses which the doctors are struggling to treat.

The sound mixing and audio overlaying is absolutely brilliant. For example, when the doctor tries to treat the left side of Shannon's body, which for a time remains partially paralyzed, his voice is muffled and indistinct. Later, on a post-release trip to the pharmacy for some toothpaste, Shannon is overwhelmed by a cacophony of crying babies. All of this makes sensorially visceral the experience of sound sensitivity that is one of the lasting consequences of Shannon's injury.

The second half of Reassembled is a documentary that recounts the making of the piece, including interviews with both the production team and the medical staff that treated Shannon at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital. That the work has since been taken up as an educational tool for both brain trauma survivors and medical practitioners is a wonderful testament to Shannon's creativity.


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