Review: PERCEPTUAL ARCHAEOLOGY at Streetcar Crowsnest

Theatre travelogue introduces new ways of perceiving the world

By: Jun. 17, 2023
Review: PERCEPTUAL ARCHAEOLOGY at Streetcar Crowsnest
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As you enter Alex Bulmer’s keenly perceptive PERCEPTUAL ARCHAEOLOGY: OR, HOW TO TRAVEL BLIND, presented by Fire and Rescue Team with Crow’s Theatre, you’re handed a thick shard of terracotta-red tile to feel. The chip may stay in your lap or hand throughout the play, a small sensual anchor on a long journey.

Bulmer, who began to lose her sight as a teen due to a genetic condition, is tired of the perception that travel is only worthwhile to the sighted. She serves as our guide on her talk based on a series of articles from her days as a travel writer, an expedition which becomes the vehicle for a voyage of self-discovery. Inspired by the life of a blind travel writer from the 19th century, a former naval officer named James Holman who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, Bulmer gets an arts grant to follow in his footsteps. She retraces his European journey from those works of his that remain; many were destroyed by people who believed the observations of a blind travel writer had no value.

Under the light-handed direction of Leah Cherniak, Bulmer’s descriptions of place and space certainly dispute this idea, because they’re quite valuable indeed. They are absorbing and often very beautiful, beginning with the way her life cracks open while mapping the contours of an L.A. swimming pool, and expanding through her travels to dusty European castles, the heartland of American country music, and the pilgrimage route of the Camino Real. She ponders ways of seeing and knowing, asking herself what it means to be blind but still travel with the frame of reference of a formerly sighted person, rather than fully embracing a completely different way of experiencing the world.

A scene where she details her attempt to board a train in Germany in the middle of what turns out to be the beginnings of a riot has all the tension of an action film; at first, one might think that her apprehension is simply part and parcel of being in an unfamiliar place without vision, until it becomes clear that the situation would be alarming to anyone. This, you realize, is a part of the experience of traveling while blind: without familiarity of place, it’s very difficult to gauge from sound alone whether a situation is normal or dangerous.

Bulmer is an appealing performer, who manages to convey a sense of wonder without treacle, and a desire for independence without becoming someone else’s inspiration porn. When she’s spinning tales of her days abroad, she’s vivid and fiery, and when she’s examining her successes and failures, she’s both blunt and vulnerable. When she has to take a long break from her planned itinerary, you can feel her weariness and desire to stay at home under the blankets. Taking stock of her life, she asks: who and what is she doing this for? Herself? To thumb her nose at a world that tells her she can’t? Or for the sweet arts and culture grant money?

Because of these meditations, PERCEPTUAL ARCHAEOLOGY justifies its title, presenting us with layers of meaning and philosophy. They’re similar layers to the ones Bulmer discovers in her narrative’s heroic predecessor, whose motivations and vulnerability she also finds herself questioning.

Also charming is Bulmer’s interaction with co-performer Enzo Massara, her “line-feeder” and occasional stage guide. Supposedly, this is Enzo’s first time doing all these things, contracted to help out as an aspiring but inexperienced actor. Most of the time, Enzo sits in the back, whispering Bulmer’s lines to her via a microphone-connected setup in a way that is barely (but slightly) perceptible to the audience, easy to get used to. As well, Enzo’s reactions to Bulmer’s story become part of the story, incorporating his admiration of her tenacity, his questions about her next steps, and his willingness to join in the dance. He also sometimes stands in for Michael, Bulmer’s longtime friend and traveling companion.

The framing is a nice idea, helping to break the wall between performer and audience, and likely giving voice to some of the audience’s questions in an inobtrusive, inoffensive way. This also encourages the audience to respond more, a necessary connection for a performer who can’t perceive the audience visually. The interplay between the two injects lightheartedness into the proceedings. I did question the decision to present their interactions as unscripted; this conceit had diminishing returns, gradually feeling a bit cutesy and at odds with the depth of the rest of the show. It felt like I wasn’t completely being trusted as an audience member to follow Bulmer’s experience.

However, the show’s many accessibility features do allow as many people as possible to come along on the journey, including a small model of the set (set design by Victoria Wallace) available for touching, verbal descriptions of action, and the aforementioned physical piece of the scenery you can hold in your hand to ground your other senses. There’s also plenty of audience interactivity, including times where the audience helps Bulmer navigate the stage with a chorus of cheers or boos.

The joy of theatre is the same as that of travel: it lies in the ability to promote multiple ways of seeing and understanding, allowing us to look through another person’s eyes. PERCEPTUAL ARCHAEOLOGY gets us to think about the very way we perceive and move through the world, and, for the sighted, about the other ways in which experiences might be open to us.

Photo of Alex Bulmer and Enzo Massara by Dahlia Katz


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