You might expect Silent Theatre Company’s Incomplete Conversations, now receiving its world premiere production at the Tapestry Fellowship Church, to be void of dialogue– after all, the Chicago outfit, known for its movement based, wordless storytelling maintains the mission of finding “truth in those moments of the human experience that are not expressed aloud.” But this latest offering, written and directed by Silent Theatre Company member Nell Voss, not only uses spoken dialogue, but relies on it as the primary storytelling device.
But, Voss and company have a trick up their sleeve—the play, which tells the story of the funeral of a pastor, takes place simultaneously in every room of the Tapestry Fellowship Church. Much like the immersive Southern Gothic mounted by Windy City Playhouse, Incomplete Conversations allows its audience members to wander from room to room, experiencing the drama unfold from the basement, where family members quibble and nibble cookies, to the sanctuary where the service, complete with music and eulogies, takes place, and all the stairwells, backrooms, and nooks in between.
Writer/director Voss employs a nifty storytelling device from the beginning—the dead man, a pastor named Eddie (Victor Holstein), wakes up at his own funeral. As the mourners begin to arrive, Eddie discovers that when he touches someone he is transported back to an important moment from their shared past. It’s a clever conceit that allows relationship and plot to unfold in an organic way. It also allows for a possible through-line—you could follow Eddie like the White Rabbit through Wonderland, meeting the cast of characters through his lens for a more traditional arc.
But the unique pleasure of Incomplete Conversations is its scatter-shotness, the small moments and snippets of dialogue witnessed for as long or as short a time as each viewer desires. There’s plenty to dig into in each of the church’s rooms throughout the runtime. Voss has crafted an array of juicy characters to inhabit this drama. The cast is uniformly excellent here, nimbly modulating performances for audience members who may be sitting next to them, or entering and even exiting rooms at a moment’s notice. Eddie’s mourners include histrionic parents, quarrelsome siblings, and a few mysterious guests who reveal their identity in small asides and in Eddie’s flashbacks (I was particularly moved by Gillian Hastings’ Alice and Dina Marie Walters’ Abigail).
I happened to witness a key plot detail in one of these flashbacks, huddled with several other people on the back stairs of the church, overlooking the lit patio. Peeking over the shoulder of the woman in front of me, watching the scene play out with the apartment dwellers across the way going about their night, I had the distinct feeling of a voyeur. These were my favorite moments of Incomplete Conversations; watching two actors in private dialogues, with only three or four other audience members, in an organic and random order.
Not to say that there isn’t a cohesive story being told here—Voss seems to be drawing from the rich tradition of family sagas and I got a distinct August Osage County vibe from some of the louder melodramatics. And coupled with the supernatural element and church setting, there are some nicely placed musings on faith, spirituality, regret and purpose (I found myself rushing into the sanctuary each time I heard the chords of “All Things Must Pass” striking up by a guitar player).
Though I wondered how the entire piece, which ends with big reveals and somber confessions, might’ve landed on some of the audience who missed what I thought were essential moments during my ramble around the church. But then I realized that’s the subtle sleight of hand being played by Incomplete Conversations. Much like our subjective daily experience, the narrative of the evening relies on happenstance, preference, and just dumb luck.
Incomplete Conversations runs until November 23 at the Tapestry Fellowship Church, 3824 W. Irving Park. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors.