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LIFT: Space, gender and race in 'Numb'

Editor's note: NolaVie launches a new partnership with a new NOLA-based online theatrical publication, LIFT. Created by Alysia Savoy and Bonnie Gabel -- performance makers themselves -- as a means of generating and expanding constructive dialogues about theatrical performance in New Orleans, the project is designed to explore the relationship performance has with reality, the reciprocal affect each has upon the other. Rather than approaching local productions through the lens of a summary or review, so to speak, LIFT’s writings are critical -- they ask hard, yet necessary questions about theater's mimetic nature and subsequently, what a particular production reveals to us about our own society and culture.

In keeping with their project's foundational concept, dialogues about performance, Savoy and Gabel enlist a rotating selection of local performers to generate critical responses to New Orleans productions. And for the sake of analytical variety, two different local performers respond to each selected production. Both performers separately attend a pre-production rehearsal as a spectator and speak with the lead artist to acquire an understanding of the show’s theoretical intention and the process through which the production materializes. After watching the final product, the rotating artists then produce a thoughtful response about their experience watching the performance, with process and intention in mind.

The performance for LIFT’s debut posting is Goat in the Road’s “Numb.” Below is a brief background of the play its makers, as well as an excerpt from local theater maker, yoga teacher and co-artistic director of New Noise Bear Hebert's response. 

Rehearsal for Goat in the Road's latest production "Numb"

Rehearsal for Goat in the Road's latest production "Numb" (Photo: Goat in the Road Productions Facebook)

About Numb from its makers:

Goat in the Road Production’s original play, Numb, presented in association with the Cachet Art and Culture Program and the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, explores the complicated history of anesthesiology and 19th century medicine. Numb looks at the ecstasy and intoxication of drugs that alter human consciousness in a quest for pain-free surgery, and the often forgotten human stories that accompany advancement.

Numb is written and directed by Chris Kaminstein and stars ensemble members Dylan Hunter, Francesca McKenzie, Ian Hoch, Leslie Boles, Shannon Flaherty, and Todd D’Amour. GRP has been developing Numb since January 2014 with two workshops phases of the piece in January and June 2014. Numb uses sound and mime in place of conventional props to create the world of the play, and features extensive sound design by Kyle Sheehan.

GRP has involved pain experts and public health thinkers, as well as the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, in conducting research for Numb and to create a conversation about the changing understanding of pain and its relief. In addition, GRP is releasing four podcasts featuring interviews with Pharmacy Museum experts and doctors on the themes of Numb in the fall of 2014.

Excerpted from Hebert's response to Numb:

In making art with any degree of historical accuracy, the artist is likely to bump up against some things that we now find unpalatable: sexism, racism, class divisions, and bad British accents come to mind. Goat in the Road’s Numb follows the story of three scientists and their wives as they explore the earliest stages of anesthesiology. The deeply human question at the crux of the piece is posed by Dr. Beddoes (played by Ian Hoch) at a dinner party, “What if we could eliminate pain?” The search for the answer drives the piece as we follow the scientists’ eccentric experiments on themselves and each other. Along with the ensemble, Director Chris Kaminstein crafted an inventive script, and Numb is performed with a daring and rigorous physicality. The actors are often laugh out loud funny, and though Numb is set 150 years ago, its themes and queries are no less relevant today. The show bravely and directly engages with the gender inequality of the time.

The ensemble cast is split evenly along gender lines, and the three women actors control the world on stage: they narrate, stopping and starting the action to set the scene by describing their surroundings, pointing out the doors, windows, and other imagined architectural details in the spartan set. This is a thoughtful attempt to give their roles more life and fullness, and in some ways these women are empowered: Fanny Burney (Leslie Boles) is a published novelist, Anna Beddoes (Francesca McKenzie) is a capable scientist, and even Elizabeth Wells (Shannon Flaherty), who is less developed, gets to tell of the disappointments of her failed marriage. Their positioning as narrators is an effort to give them power, but it only underlines the fact that this story is not about them. Despite a cast of half women and clear endeavors to include women in the narrative, the play fails the Bechdel Test, which requires that two women talk to each other for at least a minute about something other than a man. Numb is a story about white men, and their successes, struggles, and failures.

Read Hebert's response in its entirety here and the paired response from New Orleans-based playwright, writer and assistant professor in the MFA program at UNO Maxwell here. To learn more about Numb, listen to their fourth podcast about the production, featuring a panel hosted by the Cachet Arts & Culture Program and the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article cited Savoy and Gabel as the writers of the "About 'Numb'" section. The aforementioned section is written by the makers of "Numb," from Goat in the Road Productions.