Review: Who Am I? ‘Panorama’ Says There Is No Easy Answer

Posted January 12, 2018 6:32 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Just who are they anyway, these people with faces that morph with a change of the light, or a hat, or a camera angle?

You could ask them yourself, of course. (Everybody else does.) But you wouldn’t get a straight answer. In the melting pot that is the big wide world, “Who am I?” is the ultimate stumper.

In “Panorama,” the heart-and-mind-expanding new performance piece from the Italian troupe Motus at La MaMa, responses to that most basic of existential queries tend to be remarkably similar: “That’s the deepest of questions,” says one of the cast members. Another calls it “the most difficult question.”

I would identify the speakers of those lines, except that they are both said by more than one performer, each of whom may or not be speaking for her or his own self. I’m pretty sure that the black woman who is talking about the prejudice she experienced from having a yellow complexion, and that young man who describes his problems as a middle-aged woman of Turkish origin, have borrowed their autobiographies from others.

Then again, by the end of “Panorama,” I wasn’t 100 percent confident of who came from where or what their sexual identities were or even the colors of their skin. And yet I felt I had come to know each of them better than I do many people I see on a daily basis.

We are taught from childhood, if we’re lucky, that individuals are never merely the sum of their biological and sociological parts. But I have rarely seen a warmer or more engaging example of this defiance of statistics than “Panorama,” which was devised and directed by Italian theater artists Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò in collaboration with members of the Great Jones Repertory Company. (The show is presented as part of the Under the Radar Festival, and continues beyond it until Jan. 21.)

Motus (“Alexis: A Greek Tragedy,” “MDLSX”) specializes in what might be called enlightening confusion, blurring our perceptions to improve our vision. The casts of their genre-bending shows are usually small, yet you always leave a Motus production feeling you have spent time amid an ever-multiplying throng. Everybody on stage contains multitudes.

“Panorama,” which is performed mostly in English, is unusually accessible by Motus standards. Anyone who knows the classic American musical “A Chorus Line” will be familiar with the conceptual shape of this show.

What we’re watching is an audition process that asks more of its applicants than the usual song and dance. The first question posed of the performers being interviewed, before a video camera, is that aforementioned conundrum “Who are you?”

“Who I am is the question I ask myself, often, every time I look in a mirror” goes one response. And “Panorama” turns into one big, double-sided looking glass that keeps reflecting them (on the stage) and us (in the audience), until the mirror cracks.

The performers we encounter in the flesh are Maura Nguyen Donahue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, Eugene the Poogene, Perry Yung, Zishan Ugurlu and Heather Paauwe. (We meet many others through video interviews, and sometimes the live actors take on the identities of the two-dimensional projections.) And you may well ask what’s in a name, because they certainly do.

In fact, just explaining what their names are — and whether they are given names or nicknames or stage names or assimilationist variations on what they were christened — occupy a fair amount of time. And simple nomenclature becomes a gateway onto endless, globe-crossing vistas of family histories and fraught stories of immigration.

But such words aren’t even half the story. These people are, above all, performers, whose nomadic lives have led them to the all-inclusive sanctuary that theater, especially marginal theater, can be. (God bless the urban avant-garde!) And they do a lot of celebratory acting out, and directing others in acting out.

Every performer makes use of a camera or projector. Video images and simulcasts, as deft as the hands of a three-card monte artist, keep your eyes moving so you often know where sounds and images originate. (The video design is by Bosul Kim, Sangmin Chae and Billy Clark.)

And yes, there is the occasional more traditional audition piece, including the performance of a scene from the Antonioni movie “The Passenger” (which you may remember was all about escaping identity); some musical numbers (like a Michael Jackson moonwalk) and perhaps the most joyous, non-objectifying strip tease I’ve ever seen.

A strip tease in “Panorama” inevitably involves taking off a whole lot of layers. Once you hit bare flesh, though, you have by no means arrived at the end of the process.

The shape, texture and color of that skin may offer some clues to the person within. But by now you’ve learned — more deeply than any ethics class could teach you — that surfaces are only the beginning, and that skins are made to be shed.

Production Notes:


Through Jan. 21 at La MaMa, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, lamama.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

Credits: Devised and directed by Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò; dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò; lighting by Daniela Nicolò; sound by Enrico Casagrande; music by Heather Paauwe; video by Sangmin Chae and Billy Clark; sets by Seoungho Jeong; illustration, animation and video by Bosul Kim; technical direction by Yarie Vazquez; assistant to Motus, Lola Giouse; production assistant, Youngsun Lim. Presented by La MaMa Experimental Theater Club and Motus.

Cast: Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Guitierrez, Valois Mickens, Eugene the Poogene, Perry Yung and Zishan Ugurlu.