ATOM-r’s “The Operature” in Chicago

There’s a lot about ATOM-r’s Operature that makes me uncomfortable. It helps to shine a light on things.

For starters, the source material for this 5-man performance includes early anatomical theater, miniature crime scene re-enactments (known at the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death), and The Stud File, a methodical record of the sexual exploits of Samuel Steward, a 20th century tattoo artist and pornographer. Text from these sources is randomly generated by a visually interactive app, and read aloud by the performers.

There are five men, dressed in crisp white shirts and black pants. The movements, choreographed by Mark Jeffery, are businesslike, brusque, and methodical. There are segments of a large wooden table/stage/puzzle, designed by Bryan Saner, that come apart and reassemble over the course of the evening. The clothes also come undone, revealing stark rose tattoos. Throughout the show, the audience are invited to view said tattoos through their smartphones. An app generates text and visual imagery from the roses, creating another layer, another level of examination and distance, between performer and viewer.

ATOM-r is a provisional collective exploring forensics, anatomy, and 21st century embodiment through performance, language and emerging technologies. Participants include Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, Blake Russell, and Kevin Stanton, with Alfredo Salazar – Caro and Stephanie Acosta. ATOM-r co-founders Judd Morrisey and Mark Jeffery have been working together since 2003. The Operature is a culmination of two years’ work, piecing together bits of choreography, movement tables, taking moments and expanding and contracting them.

I’m the lighting designer for the show. We’re using several antique lighting fixtures from a studio called Urban Remains. Throughout the piece, stagehand/interrogators move the lights in concert with the performers. These are giant, metal lights, unkind, glaring lights, suggestive of headlights or operating rooms. Which is precisely the point. The Operature is an interrogation of violations and vulnerabilities of the body. Which is a lot of what makes me really uncomfortable.

“One leg up, wounded in battle. Two legs up, killed in battle.” This phrase, adopted from the rumored meaning of statues, serves within the pieces as poetry and performance directive. It prompts, not surprisingly, the raise of a leg, and every time, the performers embody simultaneously surgeon, detective, researcher and cadaver. They examine each other for nuance and information, reporting on their findings aloud. The space becomes the ghost of a crime scene, where every bit of evidence is packed with history both personal and anatomical.

Occasionally within the piece, Judd Morrissey steps within the center of the wooden operating table and holds a tablet aloft like, well, a tablet—a thing of knowledge and translation. He video-scans the room in circles as an app generates the dramaturgical score, which he then reads aloud. Judd operates as a narrator, announcer, stenographer, ambassador. The words come from anatomical theaters, arcs of research, sexual encounters.

In the end, there is a space that has been taken apart, revealed and examined. A remixed puzzle. There are uncomfortable crevices in the table, the performers’ bodies, the broken narrative, that are exposed to us. No real violent acts have been committed. I am still uncomfortable, but it a way that makes me reflect on my own body. I feel a level of vulnerability akin to a bruise.

ATOM-r’s “The Operature” is playing at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, March 21,22, 28 and 29th. For more information and tickets:

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