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Ennobling Nonna: A Live History

The First Production of DeFrantz’s New Slippage Series Is Promising

By Chikako Sassa

staff writer

Ennobling Nonna

Kresge Little Theater

March 11-13, 8 p.m.

Written and performed by Maria Porter

Directed by Thomas DeFrantz

Technology, culture, and theater collided in a 45-minute tour de force, showing us how individual human beings and the decisions they make come to create larger ripples within the bigger spectrum of history and memory.

Slippage is an innovative new performance collective led by MIT Associate Professor, Thomas DeFrantz. Comprising performing artists, scholars, designers, and technicians, the group interrogates connections and disruptions between emergent technologies and theatrical performance. The group creates performance events that extend discussions of cultural tradition, physical presence, and technological mediation.

Maria Porter starred as the solo performer in Slippage’s inaugural production, “Ennobling Nonna,” under the direction of Professor DeFrantz. Porter is a professor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus. She studied physical theater at the University of California at San Diego under the renowned tutelage of Tadashi Suzuki, founder and artistic director of the Suzuki Company of Toga in Japan.

The collaboration between Porter and DeFrantz began back in 1999 when Porter approached DeFrantz with a vision to explore physical theater techniques that had become important to her as a working actor and teacher. DeFrantz welcomed her initiative as an opportunity to explore how cultural studies and technology could work to enhance theater performance.

The production of “Ennobling Nonna” subsequently began materializing in 2001 out of a series of conversations, several false starts, sporadic and spontaneous rehearsals, and an expanding collaborative circle of designers, technicians, and administrative support. The graphic designer, Mike Angiola, is Porter’s brother. Angiola looked through the family albums and digitized, processed, and curated a collection of images that complemented and contextualized Porter’s performance. Porter told an after-show audience that working on the images with Angiola brought forth a kind of intimate technological connection between brother and sister.

The story of Nonna, Porter’s grandmother, emerged out of Porter’s search for her grandmother’s legacy within her identity. DeFrantz and Porter both realized that “the most important stories always have to do with people and the choices they make,” and focused on telling the story of Nonna through Porter’s movement and voice. Stories of Nonna came to Porter in bits and pieces. “And when I put her stories together,” Porter exclaims in her performance, “they made no sense.” The stories are thus arranged according to how they resonate with one another, rising and ebbing in a natural rhythm independent of chronology.

Porter assumed different characters to construct a multi-dimensional story of Giovanna, her immigrant grandmother who arrived on Ellis Island in 1918 at the age of 19. As a peasant girl in rural Italy, Giovanna dreaded her seemingly imminent fate of “bearing children after children,” “serving meal after meal,” and endless crocheting. She tossed her fate blindly into the wind and traveled to New York City, where Nick, an established furniture maker ten years her senior, fell in love with her and won her hand in marriage. Giovanna, known for her strong opinions (comparable to, in her mind, Eleanor Roosevelt), believed that “a woman must suffer to be beautiful” and subjected herself to uncomfortable high fashion, and relished the dazzle of Manhattan’s city lights and trips to the Metropolitan Opera. She learned to sew beautiful clothes for her and her children. She reigned as Madonna of the Bleach.

Giovanna, however, discovered that she does not truly love Nick. After an unfortunate accident befell one of Nick’s workers and Nick consequently went in hiding to evade the police, Giovanna eloped with Luigi. Luigi is fond of elaborate dinner parties, but when Giovanna makes a big meal she never sits down. Luigi and Giovanna constantly quarreled “because they loved each other,” and Porter recalls wondering why they ever stayed together.

The title “Ennobling Nonna” takes on two related meanings. In a general sense, Porter makes her grandmother noble by saluting to her courage, her generosity, and her relentless dedication to serving others that has had a legacy over Porter’s identity. Porter seems to also confer nobility upon her grandmother in a figurative sense, exalting the peasant girl to the status and dignity of a noblewoman and forever rescuing her from the humdrum fate that Giovanna once dreaded.

The overall effect of “Ennobling Nonna”: a dynamic palimpsest of voice, movement, text, image, and sound. Porter’s movements ranged from slow, timid tip-toeing to all-out thrashing about with refreshing abandon. She frequently slapped herself on the arms or legs to varying effects; at times, a quick slapping of her toe seemed to signify self-admonition for a casual mistake made in a culture not yet familiar to her. In contrast, a heavy slap on her forearm or chest seemed indicative of Nonna hitting a glass ceiling. Porter even seemed to defy gravity as she knocked on an imaginary door on the floor while lying face down. Her 360-degree freedom of movement created a chain of breathtaking choreography that were sometimes Giovanna, other times Nick, and sometimes Maria Porter herself. The multi-dimensionality of the storytelling was complemented by video footages, still images, sound montages, and texts projected on to two walls, but the overlapping actions never vied for attention or detracted from one another.

The use of objects -- a ball of red yarn, various pumps and high heels without their mates, a chair, a stick, an ethereal silk kimono gown --effectively animated Porter’s performance. When her movements alone seemed too abstract for meaning, the objects helped tease out imagery and stories out of the combination of movement and object. Porter explained that the objects she used were chosen under several criteria: 1) they must be found within her house; 2) they must be used at least twice; 3) they must be ubiquitous enough to evoke the spectators’ own particular associations; and 4) they must need no explaining that would bind them to a specific context. Thus, as Porter came on stage kicking around a ball of red yarn and muttering, “In the middle of the journey of my life, I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost...,” the yarn symbolized her life-path. Later on, the same yarn came to signify “fate” as Nonna tosses the ball in a haphazard manner, eyes covered, as she decides to immigrate to America. The yarn also came to mean “memory” and “legacy” later on, culminating in an essential symbol of Italian culture -- a tomato -- in the very last scene. Various shoes came to mean the arrival of guests; her elopement; her travels; and a sequential pairing of mismatching shoes capturing Nonna’s identity in transition.

The stage set consisted of a star-shaped carpet made by a flood of light from the ceiling, and a tasteful assemblage of overlapping wooden frames with sheer white paper plastered tautly on one side (akin to a Japanese shoji screen), creating a beautiful screen upon which videos and still images were projected.

The eclectic music selection ranged from Vivaldi to Mogwai, each strangely resonating with the story and movement. For me, the most memorable scene involved Nick’s return to his home in New York after staying in Florida to evade the police, only to find his wife, his two children, and all his lovely furniture gone. As Mogwai’s “Kids Will Be Skeletons” gradually escalated to its full majesty and remorse, Porter alternatingly expressed Nick’s horror, dismay, disbelief, self-reproach and self-consolation in a series of deeply affecting movements. This was truly Porter’s most evocative moment, and, as it turned out, her favorite scene.

“Ennobling Nonna” was a beautiful instance of theater professionals coming together to patiently produce a ripe, juicy show. If anything detracted from its excellence, it was its sheer under-attendance. I would strongly encourage members of the MIT community to benefit from future Slippage productions -- they are opportunities to be relished.