From the outset, Toni Leago Valle’s latest work is an interactive experience. Upon taking their seats, the audience may feel a box of popcorn is order as they are treated to movie clips (circa the 1980s) and trivia regarding the production’s ensemble of Houston dancers. It is a device that simultaneously puts viewers at ease and prepares them for their reciprocal role in the performance to come.
Rooted in the psychological theories and concepts of Voice Dialogue, Valle’s first maneuver is to introduce the audience to the Operating Ego. No mincing words here, our subject literally breaks the fourth wall of traditional theater (something that occurs often throughout the work), steps into the audience, shakes some hands, and introduces herself… well, she tries anyway. Unable to complete her sentence and offer her name, it seems our heroine is a bit unsure of who she really is. It is no mystery that the audience is being invited to come along as she discovers her many “selves.”
Creating this cast of inner beings has surely been a personal exploration for Valle. In fact, she embodies The Inner Critic in her own production, first appearing in a dramatic duet with The Operating Ego, played by the uniquely stunning Mechelle Flemming. Viewers are given a taste for each personality as they are introduced and interact with one another. Other than given titles such as The People Pleaser, The Special/Perfect Self, and The Dependent Child, the audience is given few clues as to why the characters act or react the way they do. However, the information is unessential during the parade of personalities, engaging performances, clever and often humorous choreography, and heavy dose of bittersweet nostalgia, which transports and sustains the audience through an enjoyable evening.
There are many moments in the production that deserve note. The entire cast are well-suited for their roles and they all fit together like the gigantic blocks (shaped like tetrominoes in the popular video game, Tetris) that are skillfully utilized as set, platform, shelter, and cage throughout the piece. Catalina Molnari is a stand-out in an athletic and emotional adagio atop a set of these blocks. Jennifer Magill and Joe Modlin ham it up deliciously during an entertaining duet, Corian Ellisor is both dapper and disquieting in his role as The Absence of Love Self, and in a touching duet with Mechelle Flemming which includes sequences of spell-binding gesture, young Bianca Torres-Aponte, who portrays The Vulnerable Child, is simply mesmerizing.
Tetris is a testament to Valle’s ability to create interesting characters and creatively unfold motifs, both lighthearted and solemn, one chapter at a time. In addition to presenting one woman’s journey of self-discovery, she takes the audience through events and experiences of the 1980’s and early 90’s with perhaps less rapid-fire speed than the Billy Joel hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (which actually chronicles about 40 years of America’s modern past) but not without a similar pop sensibility. With selections from Violent Femmes, The Cure, The Smiths, and even Donna Summer, the score plays like the soundtrack of someone‘s life, if not specifically Valle’s. Gen-Xers will find it hard to resist the small jolt of joy they receive when a fragment of Reality Bites appears on the backdrop during Act II, despite the clip’s weighty subject matter. In fact, although the overall effect is often uplifting, many of the themes in Tetris are far from feel-good fare. Valle asks patrons to once again watch the Challenger spaceship explode as Peter Schilling’s Major Tom plays and the dancers mournfully scan the skies. She encourages a re-visitation of such gloomy events as the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana, the OJ Simpson trial, the AIDS epidemic, and the Rodney King beating. Like Prego, “It’s in there.”
In mining her own history, Valle has produced a work that resonates and captivates. Even those too young (or too old) to appreciate what it was like to come of age during the indulgent and somewhat narcissistic era of the 1980’s will be charmed by this romp down Memory Lane. In fact, the commonalities rather than the divisions between generations and between individuals can be found in the tale Valle tells through Tetris. She has invited the audience to join her (and/or “Alex,” The Operating Ego) as she excavates her own experiences but what she uncovers, to the delight of most spectators, is a story shared by all.