Some of Annie Enneking’s songs in What I Want Now I Will Want Later are in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, performers who know that the lightest touch can hit harder than a body-slamming beat. There’s literal body-slamming in Enneking’s collaboration with theater artist Samantha Johns, but there’s also a gentle, playful ambience to this unique, completely absorbing show.
The production’s venue is a studio loft adjacent to Open Eye Figure Theatre. When I entered last night, I found the space outfitted with eclectic tchotchkes and lit with candles; a table near the front of the space was laid out with a heaping wine-and-cheese-and-fruit spread, and in a kitchen space towards the back, two women in tunics and tights (Emma Barber and Aeysha Kinnunen) were preparing what looked to be a bowl of raw carrots.
Johns is a multisensory playmaker; seeing one of her shows reminds you just how many tools conventional theater artists leave, so to speak, on the table. What I Want feels intimate not just because of its cozy staging in a space that formerly served as a home to Open Eye’s co-founders Michael Sommers and Susan Haas, but because it involves (and problematizes) the staples of our daily lives: food and clothing and music and touch. In contrast to the sterile prop living rooms on which traditionally staged dramas unfold, What I Want is authentically domestic.
Barber and Kinnunen are two members of a core quartet of performers in the show, along with Enneking and a young girl, Harper Enneking-Norton. Enneking sings several songs over the course of the show’s 70 minutes, accompanied by two musicians (Dan Dukich and Evan Murnane) who remain stationed aloft in a bedroom nook. The show begins with Enneking-Norton bursting down the stairs through plastic sheeting (actually, with plastic sheeting) as Enneking sings a baleful ballad; eventually, Enneking makes her way down the stairs to join what becomes a dynamic dance among the multigenerational quartet.
What I Want doesn’t have a conventional plot, but there are several themes that recur throughout the show’s episodic cells. There’s a near-narrative involving what might be the coming-of-age of the eerily composed Enneking-Norton, who has a few outbursts that would seem to be pained if they weren’t being transparently choreographed onstage by the older women, who offer blasé suggestions (“Yell, ‘I can’t,’ but make it real guttural—from your throat,” suggests Enneking). Near the show’s end, Enneking simply declares, “Body,” and the girl dons high heels for a few poised steps. That’s about as narrative as What I Want gets.
Every space in the studio is used, from the stairs to the sofa to the kitchen counters. The performers all take turns in the foreground, often joining in pairs for visceral duets: Barber and Kinnunen wrestle; Kinnunen and Enneking-Norton feel one another’s faces, first without and then with a drapery of plastic sheeting. The piece is largely silent, though there are a couple of texts (one recited by Enneking-Norton from a perch in an antique wheelchair) in addition to the lyrics of Enneking’s original songs, dwelling on the details of what might be lost loves.
On paper, this all sounds a little precious—and some might find it so, but what anchors the piece in messy reality (rather than abstracted conceits) is the riveting presence that the performers bring to the space. As much as anything, this is a show about what it means to inhabit a body, and an early moment—when the four performers slough off their tights with the help of the studio’s jagged brickwork, rough upholstery, and odd corners—sets the tone. This show is playful, but it’s about serious themes, and these performers are taking real risks in front of their small, attentive audience.
This show is a real leap forward for Johns, who’s created some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen in eight years of covering local theater: The Thing, Even If We Never Look Forward, You Don’t Have to Choose…, Snowfuck, and other unforgettable shows Johns has created with collaborators such as George McConnell and Savannah Reich. What I Want is not necessarily better than those shows, but it takes some of the energy that made those shows work and carries it into a new context. Less raucous and more focused, What I Want suspends its performers so artfully in space and time that a studio apartment feels as richly theatrical as anything you’ve seen on the Wurtele Thrust.