Edinburgh Fringe 2017
“Award-winning Nilaja Sun (No Child…) breathes life into a vibrant mix of Lower East Side residents in her latest solo show. At the heart of Pike St. is Evelyn. She’s balancing welcoming her Navy SEAL brother home, keeping her eccentric father out of trouble and providing electricity for her daughter on life-support. All this before a hurricane hits NYC. Pike St. is one of 2017’s unmissable shows. ‘Nilaja Sun is a conjuror and an athlete, a raucous comedian and a poet of hidden pain, a virtuoso at seemingly every skill the stage requires’ (Hilton Als, New Yorker).”
Pike St. is a reminder of the integrity and importance of the present, an invocation to celebrate all the potentialities of being alive. Until I saw it, I had yet to experience a production which perpetually embodies the essence of what makes theatre vital and valuable: its momentousness. Nilaja Sun’s solo piece is the beating heart of the performance art solar system. She delivers a life-giving, endlessly energetic and entirely committed performance, which involves her not only inhabiting six characters, but managing with stunning virtuosity to make each of them tangibly present in the space at once. It was a bravely spiritual experience, which has been revisiting me ever since.
Defining Pike St. as what it is, a one-woman show, simultaneously restricts and does justice to Sun’s sheer skill, as she creates interactions and conversations which fill the whole space, using her single frame and voice box. When characters would intercut each other, dance together, fight, hold and touch one another, I was utterly mesmerised by the painstaking attention to detail of every gesture, look and tonal inflection; the diverse personalities ceaselessly well-observed and rigorously portrayed. Stepping between individuals with decades between them effortlessly, Sun’s ease and control was a constant indication of the work and care responsible for bringing this piece into being.
Pike St. travelled through various settings in New York’s District 12, but the majority of the action took place in the flat of the industrious, resilient Evelyn. She lives with her eccentric father and young daughter, Candace, who suffered an aneurysm and is on life-support. As the audience filed into the space, Sun as Candace was seated in the centre on the only item of set: a small stool. As well as being a manifestation of her paralysis, the static stool was also symbol of the constancy of Evelyn’s love and worry for her daughter; of Candace’s dependence on her family; and of her being at the centre of their lives. I was transfixed on everything which was there, and still aware of it when it was not.
Pike St.’s ingenious use of light and sound fleshed out the world of the play and strengthened Sun’s uniquely realised performance. Small LEDs on the Roundabout’s ceiling turned off and on in cascades, rippling like water and flickering as they blazed to the red climax of the piece. Recorded sounds struck the perfect balance between being seamlessly real and unobtrusive, ethereal and transportive. They built the architecture of these people’s surroundings, conveying public and private worlds. Manny, Evelyn’s brother, a televised war hero who returns from fighting in the Navy SEAL, opens a window to speak to his friend in the street. Perfectly coordinated are the scrape of the window opening and the responding city activity below. He opens a can and we hear a reactive ‘hiss’. Retelling a war story, a bomb blast hurtles round the round. But Manny, suffering from PTSD, mistakes sounds, too. He hears the rattle of train tracks as gunfire. Sound invites the audience to purely imagine, to climb inside the characters’ bodies and glimpse inside their heads.
Most poignant is the noise of Candace’s breathing, rattling through the auditorium, an aural aid which makes her suffering three-dimensional, muscular and visceral. From Candace’s point of view, using a slowed-down recording which sounds as if the voice were underwater, we hear her mother coaxing her through breathing exercises. And we are immersed in her physical paralysis. Then before you know what is happening, Sun has leapt up from her seat to become someone else with an abler body. This courageous choice to play someone so severely disabled never felt crass or wrong. Rather, the coalescing elements of the piece, from lights to sound to diligent physical and vocal work, proved it to be entirely sensitive and needed. Flashbacks to Candace before the aneurysm, elevated atop the stool, addressing her classmates with youthful confidence, brought the gravity of her illness down to earth, in a way which was intensely tragic and instantly moving. I had tears in my eyes before I felt them brim.
Instances of audience interaction did not feel heavy-handed, but entirely natural. The piece began with Sun engaging all in the Roundabout space in a breathing warm-up, a device which punctuated Pike St. The natural camaraderie of an in-the-round setting was utilised to full effect, as the audience looked at one another stretching and humming with evident humour. Sun fused everyone in that room together and so, as she began to introduce and embody each eclectic personality in this microcosm of the Lower East Side, I was totally invested, not only in their personal tribulations, but in how they were constantly shaping and thwarting one another’s trajectories. This production was empathetic, understanding and tender, forgiving of life through art. Please, go and see it. You’ll leave hurting, hoping, and grateful.