If you go see The Vanishing Play—a new devised piece by ensemble Woof Nova directed by Daniel Allen Nelson—you might notice the following onstage: tutu-clad showgirls, a fish puppet swinging from a trapeze, large cloth dummies plummeting in from the ceiling, and fuzzy, abstract projections on the upstage wall.
What’s less evident in Woof Nova’s piece—which apparently caps off a trilogy of theatrical meditations on “loss”—is any compelling connection between these things, or a reason to care about them. According to the company, their drama traces the travails of two siblings: a man (played by Nelson) and his sister (Alenka Kraigher), who are reunited in Egypt after two decades apart. Sis thought Bro had perished in a long-ago circus catastrophe (Mom and Pop were both carnies), so she’s delighted to find him alive and immediately enlists his help as a language tutor, assisting in her attempts to speak unaccented English.
But what we see does little to convey either this story or its significance to us. The performers murmur ominously to one another, roaming so freely between flashback and present day that their time-traveling gets tricky to follow. The siblings’ campy, be-wigged matriarch (Gina Bonati) appears intermittently to sing or berate her children. (In memory mode, we learn that her son, wimpier than his circus-strongman dad, is a great disappointment to the family.)
Other elements of the show are pleasant but mystifying: Two chorus girls in black sequins croon ’50s-era pop songs into a microphone, while various trapezes swing back and forth but are rarely swung on. A white chalk body outline, stenciled onto black fabric, lingers upstage, and the sister repeatedly performs CPR—on her brother and on a cloth dummy by turns. (Is she reliving traumatic memories of his childhood accident? Possibly, but it’s hard to tell.)
If Woof Nova took all this a little less seriously, The Vanishing Play might be an enjoyable, if abstract, collage of circus sounds and imagery. But with so much portent in the air and so little meaning behind it, the result is a piece of theater that quickly vanishes from memory.