The following is a full spoiler review for Ceaseless Fun’s 2018 production Agnosia.
“What have you lost?”
I was instructed not to say anything, but the response must have been in my eyes. How could it not be? The question is universal in the most unhyperbolical sense: everyone’s answer may be different, but everyone has an answer. Over the course of our lives, for however long we’re lucky enough to live them, loss is a constant and surprising force. We lose loved ones, dreams, mementos, the basic utilities that we take for granted, and so much more until at last we lose everything as the world loses us. Agnosia, in clinical terms, refers to the gradual loss of sensorial recognition due to any number of neurological disorders. You may be able to see, but you can’t recognize faces. You may have the strength to hold a key in your hand, but you don’t know what it does or why you have it. With each loss you become less able to relate to and understand the world around you.
The more poetical, hopeful definition that immersive goers have been introduced to for the past month presents Agnosia as a state of being both before being and after being. The bookending void that is perhaps the only unifying experience each life can claim to have: the darkness before life and the darkness after death. It is through this definition that the artists and storytellers of Ceaseless Fun, in their exquisitely observed, intimately felt, and achingly relatable first of three planned offerings this year, explore the countless little moments that make up a life forced to continue under the weight of grief and beautifully guide their audience through the darkness towards a kind of grace. Because of this, Agnosia now carries with it a third meaning: the name of the first great Los Angeles immersive of 2018.
Agnosia begins with a walk towards a figure shrouded in darkness at the far end of a parking lot, an old friend in need of some consolation and a sympathetic ear as they continue to endure some great loss. That friend could be a man, scruffy and disheveled; the glowing orange tip of the cigarette that comforts and kills him pulses in and out with each drag, the embers sustained by his breath. Or that friend could be a woman, shifting from one foot to another, pulling her hooded sweatshirt tightly around her body in a futile embrace, guarding against the cold and the dark. How the night progresses from there relies largely on us, as the two lost souls vie for our attention in the space they appear to once have shared.
Dakota Loesch and Emily Yetter both treat us to generous, multi-faceted performances of mesmerizing rawness and vulnerability as they embody the sentimentality and frustration etched in the script’s gorgeous prose. The structure of the piece is such that each of them is essentially performing a solo show concurrently, which would be difficult enough if it weren’t for the added unpredictable element of the agency the piece affords the audience, meaning that Loesch and Yetter must maintain a believable flow and emotional progression for their characters while not knowing which text they will need to deliver until the moment a choice is made. While their performances are engaging and spontaneous, a tremendous amount of rehearsal was obviously put in, ensuring a seamless through line and connection to the participant while also staying mindful of the ebb and flow of focus for their fellow performer. It is a testament to both performers that they are able to make it look so easy.
The superlative direction on display here cannot be overlooked, as meticulous as it is soulful. The dialogue and performances are so engaging that it can be easy to overlook the machinery and wonder at just how much timing and precision it must take to perfectly balance both halves of this piece, especially considering the rolling admission of a new participant every fifteen minutes or so. Each individual aside lines up with its counterpart, each movement precise, each volume modulation conscientious. It must have taken immense trial and error from the first day of writing through what I assume was some exhaustive workshopping until the timing was sufficiently refined.
And yet you would never know it from the quietness and ease with which the night plays out. This is an experience made up of interactions so unassuming and tender and honest that it feels as though you could spend hours with this pair of characters if you thought it would do them any good. Collaborating on a silly drawing, going through a box of old shoes, simply sitting and holding hands with someone in need of human contact. Well-meaning but ultimately hollow recreations of rituals of a time before their loss. Agnosia mines the full range of experiences and emotions that accompany times in our lives like this. What it does to our moods, our bodies, our perception of people’s attention and intention. It can disrupt and send us adrift at a cellular level. Laughing one minute, crying the next, numbness and pain in the same sensation. We see all of this in the faces and mannerisms of the characters, and our hearts ache for them.
The direction that participants not speak to the performers is a common one in immersive theatre, but rarely has it felt so essentially part of experiencing your time with them. Beyond the natural compulsion we have to answer when spoken to, we find ourselves struggling against the urge to do even more. Cast as we are in the role of a friend, our instinct is to reassure, to commiserate, but to what end? Could anything we say actually assuage the hell these people are going through? Is there really a magic phrase to make it all go away? Of course not, but as they often insist, our presence is enough.
I can imagine two audience members discussing their experiences afterwards discovering they have entirely contradictory understandings of what exact circumstances these two characters are found in, who has lost who etc. There are subtle context clues peppered throughout that could support a number of contradictory interpretations, and the truth perceived within the nebulous form and rules of the world Ceaseless Fun has created should remain unspoiled and unchallenged for each visitor. However, as someone lucky enough to have visited twice and therefore was able to take in the entirety of both performances, I believe the intent is to specifically confound people’s notions of a simple binary narrative this piece could have settled for and instead expand the framework until we are surrounded by a world of magical realism where all possibilities are correct and the piece becomes less concerned with what was lost and more focused on conveying how loss as a concept feels.
Over the course of the run I have read reactions from participants who have been touched deeply by their time in Agnosia. For them, the work seemed to achieve something more personal and rare than simple entertainment, enlightenment, or even inspiration. Agnosia, it seems, is theatre that can heal. At a certain point in the healing process, eventually you come to the time for “moving on,” where you attempt to pick up the pieces and press forward towards some semblance of life before the loss, but of course by it’s very nature that will never be totally possible. Loss is a single moment that never ends. Still, as we make our way through the darkness of the tunnel towards some uncertain future and countless losses (and some gains too, after all) still to come, perhaps we can at least be comforted by the fact that we are all together and walking in the same direction. As Agnosia reminds us, there are very few certainties in this life, but if this beautiful, thoughtful, sensitive work is any indication, let us be thankful that we can count two more new productions from Ceaseless Fun in 2018 among them.