REVIEW: Vida Chai’s Somewhere Strange
Review: True to Its Title, Somewhere Strange Journeyed Into an Ambiguous Surreality
By Vanessa Reseland
As I took my seat in the New Hazlett Theatre, the faintest tweet of a bird caught my ear. It was so faint that I asked the person next to me if they had heard it. They had not. I was there to see Vida Chai’s Somewhere Strange, directed by Lindsay Goranson. I knew this was going to be a musical event, sparked by the past two years of Vida’s life, and I was eager to hear their story. Wait, I heard that bird again! Or did I? I turned to the set for clues.
Stage right was a drum set. Around the kit, a bass guitar, stand up bass, and electric guitar rested on stands like puppets propped on sticks. I eyed them suspiciously, as if they could prompt the opening of the show by themselves, but without a translator, they remained lifeless, vaguely obscured by a single vertical stick and some low shrubbery. Was I not supposed to see these instruments? I saw them.
I turned my head to stage left and saw a velvet maroon couch. On both sides of the armrests were large stones, foliage, and papier-mâché mushrooms. There was a mist (dry ice) in the air and a blue glow. We could have been under the moon. It appeared as though that couch had grown out of the earth as naturally as the carpet made of moss. Above these set pieces, three large paper airplanes were suspended. Scenic Designer, Ningning Yang, had me searching for an explanation. What was the context? Were we in for a story of earthly duality? Nature versus human creation?? Are we in the woods or 9th grade homeroom? Would we visit both?
I was full of premature questions. Fortunately, before long, the lights dimmed. Vida Chai entered the stage, guitar in hand, and a spotlight shone directly onto the maroon couch. They took their place in the center and, slumped back against the cushions. The thoughtful troubadour huffed at their attempted chords until the sought-after finger pattern came to them, and frustration turned to longing. It was an introspective intro, also full of questions:
“How come no one writes me Sullen Love Songs?”
The band stepped out, including Dan Miller on upright bass, Ryan Socrates on percussion/drum kit, and Gray Buchanan on fiddle/electric guitar, and a fully-backed song resonated through the misty room with a country-western twang and Vida’s folk-singer voice. Soon, the arrangement was joined by the backing vocalists, Treasure Treasure and Kelsey Robinson, a delightfully charismatic duo, dressed as mushrooms in the style of 60’s hippy-dippy art folk. It was tempting to lose myself in the glee they shared with the music and each other. Were they Vida’s internal voices? Were they imaginary? Was all of this a dream?
Soon after settling into this easy-going vibe, there was a drastic shift. All thoughtful folk music ceased and was replaced by harsh strobe lights and soundbites about Covid, Russian attacks on Ukraine, and all news terrible. The sights and sounds grew brighter and louder until they climaxed, and the tension popped. This moment, when the experience of world trauma was brought into the theatre, was a challenging one to confront. The word “COVID” has a profound personal affect, and each one of us must face the unique discomfort that comes with it. It is hard to reconcile. Showing us how overwhelming it was to experience the heights of COVID was kind of like telling someone who’s choking that you choked too, yesterday, and it was awful. Even if we would typically have sympathy for the previously choking person, we can’t really focus on anything but the fact that we are choking now. In other words, “too soon?”
And yet, upon hearing the word, “Covid,” sung within the effortless originality of the song Peaks and Valleys, I felt a tear in my eye:
“Time is just a metronome trying to lead us back home,
but I think I left my shoes in someone else’s house.
Clinging onto a friend.
Keep me alive ’til Covid ends.
I love to see the water rolling down your face.”
Our reliance on those in our “pod” was immediate when Covid hit, yet the casual presentation of such a dramatic notion, “keep me alive,” has become a relatable juxtaposition we’ve been living with for years now. Death hangs in our air, and you have a Zoom meeting at noon. Perhaps it simply comes down to the fact that it is more inspiring to watch a person survive than to watch them succumb.
The introduction of one of the dancers, Meghan Philips, was the first masked face in the show. It had an affect that was particular to the Western view of masking. In many parts of Asia, masks have been a common form of respectful safety since the SARS outbreak of 2002 and in Japan since the 1950s. In America, the present-day fallout over mandates and the politicizing of public health made the mask a polarizing prop. It appeared menacing on this new person entering the bubble, essentially bringing Covid into Vida’s woodland bubble.