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Light, sound and grain elevators star in Torn Space's brave new Buffalo world

Vegging out by binge-watching TV in the A.C. and soaking up outdoor concerts by the keg are time-honored summer entertainments, but sometimes the brain wants more. It craves the new, the unexpected, the inexplicable, the enlightening, the weird.

And when that weird new enlightenment is delivered among the icons of a long-neglected industrial corridor, it can be transformative, for the viewer, participants and the city they love.

Torn Space Theater knows this and for years now has nurtured that need with its site-specific summer performances at Silo City. This year's show, "Stations," started Friday night and continues Aug. 11, 12 and 17-19.

Fortunately for novices who want to try the interactive theater experience, it is designed to be felt as much as understood, so if the cerebral struggles to keep up with the visceral, that's not a problem.

The multi-movement production was written and directed by Dan Shanahan and Melissa Meola as a celebration of the early harvest, and the theme is one of hurt and healing. Guests who take part in the preshow VIP boat ride on the Buffalo River get an early look at the unnamed central characters, who are portraying the concepts of Burden, Conveyor and Healing.

[Related: Q&A with Melissa Meola, from 2017]

Burden lives up to his name, a broken creature ragged and bowed. Healing is more regal, a bald-headed bride with a probing gaze. But the youthful Conveyor is the only one who reaches out, inviting passengers to chant with him the mantra "Existence, consciousness, bliss" and to commend their suffering to the waters.

Somehow passing the SS Columbia (sister ship of the Canadiana), patiently awaiting its own healing and restoration in its riverside mooring, enhances the effect.

Back at Silo City, the larger audience gathers in the gravelly Transition space surrounded by the grain elevators and warehouses before dividing into four groups that are escorted from station to station by satin-draped anonymous guides. There is little instruction; individuals are allowed to figure out for themselves where they want to be and what they believe they are seeing.

They see a lot of things. In "Bloodletting," by Justin Rowland and Greg Robertson, a young man is cleansed with blood instead of water, a symbolic carrying away of woe.

In the "Boundary" movement, a light installation by Olivier Pasquet, viewers realize that they can see more in their shadows than looking directly into the bright light that produces them, with the light only visible when obstructed. (Viewing this from outside, the audience within resembles the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," when the backlit humans and aliens emerge from the spaceship.)

For "Bliss," choreographed by Alexia Buono against Frank Napolski's playful light show, the audience finds itself on the outside looking in as dancers frolic in the streams of color.

Finally, sound takes the stage in "Bath," its power breaking over the audience in dark waves as artist Liz Holland rings emotion from a set of gongs suspended behind a tranquil tableau in which Healing is tended with a herbal bath. Backlighting, smoke effects and the reverberation from the music creates a common energy.

Once outside, the movements and audiences come together for the video conclusion, "Arrival." The juxtaposition of naked Burden and revived Healing culminates in a reveal in which, the authors say, memories are exorcised and a new beginning is created. Watching it unfold, one wonders if this is how the druids of Stonehenge felt when the planets aligned.

We exit to the strains of "All You Need Is Love," but carry along a feeling evoked by words of poet Arseny Tarkovsky, heard earlier in the performance:

"Behind us our fate was groping /
Like an insane man with a razor in his hand."

It was invigorating and disturbing.

Theatergoers should note that high-heeled shoes are not permitted and flip-flops are discouraged in the rough terrain. Alcoholic beverages are available, including as part of "Bliss," and, unlike almost every other commercial entertainment production, photography is allowed and social media postings are encouraged. This celebration is meant to be shared, although I wouldn't recommend it for children.

Theater Review

"Stations"

3 stars (out of four)

Part 2 of Torn Space Theater's Response Festival, the multimedia show uses light, sound, dance and performance for an immersion experience at Silo City, 20 Childs St., entrance south of the Ohio Street bridge. Through Aug. 19.

Tickets are $25 for the main show, $75 to include the pre-show boat ride, available at tornspacetheater.com.

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