In Refuge, a scorching fusion of theater and visual art from Shaking the Tree Theatre, Our Lady of the Primordial Fire (Nicole Virginia Accuardi) takes a torch to the idea of likability. "Fuck! That!" she bellows, stabbing at each word with brutal emphasis. "Time to burn it down."
Her declaration is an attack on the misogynistic branding of female politicians as "unlikable," but it also embodies Shaking the Tree's mission: to burn theatrical conventions to the ground. No genre, style or set of ideas can contain the mind of the company's founding artistic director, Samantha Van Der Merwe—she is a master of mind-expanding experiences that leave you discombobulated and intoxicated.
With beauty, dreaminess, wrath and even wit, Refuge continues Shaking the Tree's tradition of untamed innovation. It is also a rare pandemic production that audiences can see in person. In small "germ pods," groups can experience the show's paintings, vocal performances and filmed dances, which invite the viewer to see the COVID-19 outbreak not as a singular horror but as part of an ecosystem already unbalanced by humanity's destructive domination over nature.
"It's a very stern and loving voice that comes through—and it feels larger than life," says Van Der Merwe. "If I have to think about putting a face or a personality onto this goddess energy or this wild mother energy, it's not soft. It can be in places, but there's an authority that comes through, which is really quite lovely."
Refuge emerged from the ennui that characterized the early months of the pandemic. "I think I was sitting at the same table I'm sitting at right now, staring out the window, wondering what to do with myself and with my days," says Van Der Merwe. "It was about a week after lockdown, and I had this idea to create a sacred space."
Van Der Merwe decided to structure Refuge around 11 goddesses who could both comfort and provoke. She painted panels with brash acrylic shades to represent each goddess, then recruited writers and performers to incarnate the characters with either their voices or their bodies.
The artists invoked influences that ranged from classic to contemporary. Josie Seid, who plays Our Lady of the Primal Waters, was inspired by the African goddess Yemaya, while Kayla Hanson, who brings Our Lady of Essence and Exchange to life, says she was influenced by Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" music video.
"She has one outfit where you see just her mouth," Hanson says. "And I thought, 'Oh, that's so cool, and that kind of works perfectly for this, because we're focused on breathing, breath, voice exchange.'"
While Refuge is entertaining—especially when two of the goddesses start chatting about The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—it also calls audiences to confront climate crisis.
"The soundscape pulls in a lot of elements: wind and rain, water and whatever is connected to each goddess," says Van Der Merwe. "Nature will always regenerate. It's the humans who need to get on board, because we're in danger of eliminating ourselves."
Rousing the citizens of a demoralized world may be daunting, but Van Der Merwe is heartened by the liberating effect that Refuge has had on audiences. "Some people get up and get close to the paintings and some people sit, or some people lie down," she says. "It's really beautiful. They just feel free to do whatever they want to do in the space."
Making people feel intellectually and emotionally free is what Shaking the Tree does best—and so do contributing artists like Josie Seid, whose metaphorical description of her part in the production sounds like a company manifesto.
"You've got the ocean rocking you real gently and it feels nice, but you might hit some waves and it might get a little scary and it might get a little dangerous," she says. "But then you make it through that storm and you get to the water on the other side and it calms down, but you're going to be different. What you went through is going to change the way you look at the ocean."
SEE IT: Refuge is at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., through May 22. 6, 7:30 and 9 pm Thursday-Saturday; 2, 3:30 and 5 pm Sunday. Sold out, but you can join the waitlist in case of cancellations at shaking-the-tree.com/refuge.html. Donations accepted.