So your tour group’s ambling east on 23rd Street toward Sixth under the moon. Your guide’s just noted the luminaries who died at the Chelsea Hotel when suddenly you see her. Frozen among the passersby and panhandlers is a newsgirl who once stood in exactly that spot in 1895. In long skirts and a flower-bedecked chapeau, hugging a sheaf of papers, she stares straight at you. Dressed and made-up entirely in black and white, she is a striking three-dimensional representation of one of the archival photographs in your program for Night Light (the Kitchen), Ann Carlson’s performance meditation on past and present and place.
“Newsgirl” is the first of eight living tableaux of pictures taken around Chelsea from 1895 to 1972 and re-created through the impressive talents of Carlson’s designers (Zach Hadlock, Roger Buxton, Larue Designs, Linnaea Tillett, and Tony Giovannetti). A series of guides lead you to them, snaking through the far West 20s, detailing factoids of many eras while relating their own personal connections to the neighborhood. For one man, it was the brawling playroom of his Irish grandparents and the gay bacchanalia of his youth. For a performing mom, it was the “hotbed of modern dance.”
At first Carlson’s concept works wonderfully, spotlighting many sediments of history simultaneously—on which you overlay your own. But though some photos are ingeniously staged—a murder victim lying spookily below stairs under the old elevated-train tracks, young priests framed in the lighted doorway of an 1890s seminary—the tableaux become too spaced apart, and the surprise and intensity of the experience is diffused. So you feel as if you’re just on a fun, offbeat tour in the moonlight. No complaints here.