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Review: Arden: But, Not Without You Is a Cleansing Breath for the Flea Theater

The experimental piece initiates the Flea's new season.

Niegel Smith and Jack Fuller star in Arden: But, Not Without You, co-directed by Smith and Nia Witherspoon, at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

Throughout Arden: But, Not Without You, we are told "this house is in ruins" and "this place is fraught" — two very fitting lines for the Flea, a theater that since the pandemic has been, well, fraught. The Flea, after dealing with a slew of issues and controversies, has decided to begin anew with a new mission to support experimental work by Black, brown, and queer artists. Arden is the debut production of this improved Flea, birthing something more experimental and diverse into existence.

Usually when we go to the theater, we prepare to feel intense emotions. While it certainly is a happy place for many (myself included), it is not necessarily a calm place, but one filled with intense catharsis. Arden, however, has a very different vibe, one that is decidedly serene and calming. Arden is like a theatrical guided meditation. At several points, the performers even lead the audience in a sound bath, teaching us how to breathe and intone together.

More than just centering breaths though, Arden has a more symbolic function for the Flea, cleansing the space with prayer, invocations, blessings, and communal ritual. While we begin in ruins, Arden takes us to a forest clearing, where we gather and come together, becoming filled with love and strength.

The production was commissioned by the Flea and feels more like a ritual for the Flea than a performance for the public. While it makes for a mostly enjoyable audience experience, it does not feel like it is for us – it feels like we are watching a private moment of a group cleansing their own space, primarily created for those in the Flea community to watch and experience.

Diana Oh stars in Arden: But, Not Without You at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

Likewise, it has a fluid feeling that can come across as unfinished or inchoate. This spontaneous and organic nature feels true to the spirit of the show, but can be unsatisfying for the audience. The preview performance I saw, for instance, included an improvised and extended portion at the end (which the performers had to ask the in-attendance producer for permission to do) and yet the show ran 20 minutes under the stated run time. Arden feels like a work in progress, an amorphous thing that is still changing. Despite this, if the production was more finalized and scripted, it would run contrary to what the show is trying to do.

For example, several of the strongest moments of the show were completely improvised. Most notably Diana Oh (the shining star of the production) gives an impromptu sermon on a recent casting email they received, and on how important it is to say "no thanks." On the other hand, some of the most structured portions, including those featuring Niegel Smith (the Flea's artistic director) were the weakest and least effective, in particular a manic section of him yelling and frantically dancing, painfully punctuated with strobe lights.

Smith has a monologue about a forest, the only reference to the titular forest of Arden other than some hanging tree branches (Peter Born is credited with "environment design"), which made me wonder: why invoke Shakespeare at all in the title? If anything, it seemed at odds with the politics of the piece.

In addition to Smith, Oh, and Born, Arden was developed in collaboration with Okwui Okpokwasili and Carrie Mae Weems, who also act as performers and musicians; the piece includes a band which also features Serena Ebony Miller (bass/cello), Bernice "Boom Boom" Brooks (percussion), and Viva DeConcini (guitar); Smith and Nia Witherspoon co-direct, Oh and Jack Fuller co-music direct.

Diana Oh and Jack Fuller sing in Arden: But, Not Without You at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

In the later portion of the show, the group play together and serenade us, with Oh leading with fierce vocals (Oh is credited as composer, with one song having lyrics by Okpokwasili and music by Okpokwasili and Born). Once again, with Oh leading things, we are in great hands. Much of the text in the beginning of the piece is projected on the walls (projection, lights, and sound by Hao Bai), and it made me wish the lyrics for the songs were also projected, so we could appreciate them fully.

Between its songs and its prayer-like prose, Arden feels like a poem, an ode to new beginnings, a ritual to solemnize a space, and a group embrace. The performers let us in, open their arms, feed off our energy, and offer us blessings. Together, we can hopefully leave more at peace and bask in this much-transformed version of the Flea.