Return the Moon Review: Third Rail Projects latest site-specific experiment

If Third Rail Projects’ “Return The Moon” — an eerie, airy 75 minutes that is as much secular ritual as work of theater — had been produced by almost any other theater company, I might have thought: Brother, are you out of step. That’s because it’s presented on Zoom. At a time when everybody else is celebrating the return of in-person theater, the artists behind “Return The Moon” proclaim their show “a live performance created specifically for the Zoom platform,” as if that’s something novel and praiseworthy — as if “Zoom fatigue” hasn’t been a thing for at least seventeen months.

But Third Rail Projects is not any other theater company. It has a track record as one of the most inventive companies in New York. It has created dozens of  works since 2005, most notably the immersive, site-specific  “Then She Fell”  a wholly original, long-running take on Alice in Wonderland and its author Lewis Carroll, as well as “Grand Paradise” and “Ghost Light.”  I haven’t completely loved everything of theirs that I’ve seen. (“Midsummer A Banquet” comes to mind),  but I’ve always admired their efforts to engage the audience directly in intriguing ways.

Third Rail Projects rarely presents their shows in traditional theaters, so “Return The Moon” is arguably a continuation of their site-specific experiments, only this time their site is online. When the creative team talks on their website about “the unique opportunities that the Zoom platform affords,” If nothing else, it encourages me to believe that Zoom might continue to be used creatively in theatrical endeavors.

“Return the Moon” is more or less divided into three segments (and a fourth much later — which I’ll get to in a moment.) In the first twenty minutes or so, the audience members (probably 60 in number, which is the stated maximum per performance) were divided into separate Zoom rooms (probably four), each led by a company member. I was in the room with an amiable performer named Joshua Gonzales. who led us through a series of visualization exercises, in an attempt to take a trip to our subconscious. We were asked to close our eyes and, for example, “picture a  village… It’s about the feeling of moving through familiar streets. Perhaps streets that you knew as a child, or maybe streets that you chose when you were older. Wander through a familiar skyline as it gets dark. Until you recognize a building with a door you know, and familiar faces inside voices inviting you in.” Then we were asked to open our eyes “and please write whatever you’re thinking about in the chat and I’ll do that too.”

When we all gathered back in a single room, the performers recited a selection of the words that we all had posted in the chat, as what they called a toast. 

What followed was a folktale of the sort you might tell children around a campfire. Once upon a time, it began, there was no sun and the moon neither waxed nor waned but stayed bright all the time – until one night it suddenly disappeared. As other-worldly music played on my speaker, and various images were presented on my darkened screen – some abstract shapes, inert shadow puppetry, paper cut-outs that suggested a village, a bog nearby, a house with a window, candles, the moon – the performers intoned the tale of how the villagers gathered together and brought about the return of the moon, which started to behave in the way we know it today.

A lovely story in its way, although it wasn’t clear to me how much, if any, of it was shaped by the earlier audience member exercises, nor what I was supposed to make of it. Perhaps the tale was meant as a metaphor for the dark period that we have survived together. Indeed director Zach Morris has been quoted as observing that Zoom itself “has become kind of an artifact and metaphor for the dissonance of distanced connection.”

I stumbled on a second metaphor a few days later when I received a letter via U.S. mail from “Return the Moon” (with a return address in Brooklyn.) . Inside was a transcript of the story about the moon, the show’s credits, a card that broke down the show into 28 steps (1. Gather… 6. Close your eyes…. 8. Picture the Village… 15. Picture the bog etc), under the title “a contemporary ritual for dark nights.” This felt almost like a prayer card, guiding us to spread the faith..

There was also a white paper “shadowbox” like the ones we had seen on screen during the show,   but unassembled. Another card listed instructions on how to fold the paper to create the little box with a window onto the village beneath the moon and in front of trees. Against my initial impulse, I eventually followed the ten steps, which felt something like putting together a holy relic from Ikea  (5. “One of [the flaps] has a cut out of the moon. Fold the moon down on the diagonal.”) The battered little paper cube that emerged after my ministrations hardly resembled the ones that had been presented during “Return the Moon.” And there was my new metaphor. I might not be the ideal audience for “Return the Moon.” The show doesn’t necessarily demand greater dexterity, but it surely most appeals to theatergoers most open to free-range spirituality.  On the other hand, on the back of the card with the instructions was a calendar of new moons over the next year. The next one is on October 6, 2021, and, thanks to “Return the Moon,” I’m planning to look up, and consider the darkness.

Return The Moon
Third Rail Projects
through September 30
running time: 75 minutes
tickets: $15 to $67
Conceived and directed by Zach Morris and created by Alberto Denis, Kristin Dwyer, Joshua Gonzales, Sean Hagerty, Justin Lynch, Zach Morris, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, and Edward Rice. Performed by Alberto Denis, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, and Tara O’Con. Assistant direction by Marissa Nielsen-Pincus; choreography by Marissa Nielsen-Pincus,  Alberto Denis, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Zach Morris, and Tara O’Con; sound design and original music by Sean Hagerty; visual design by Zach Morris in collaboration with Alberto Denis, Kristin Dwyer, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, and Edward Rice; stage management by Kristin Dwyer; and production management by Kristin Dwyer, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus and Edward Rice. It is produced by Zach Morris & Edward Rice.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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