The new performance work Take a Letter involves what's likely the largest machine ever built for an original stage production in Pittsburgh.
It looks like a carnival ride designed by a surrealist. Its 25-foot-long steel crane-arm perches like a seesaw on an 8-foot-tall termite-mound of books. On one end of the arm sits a meteorite; from the other hangs a small boat. Hydraulics hidden inside the 9,000-pound sculpture make the arm seesaw or spin, at speeds from a slow walk to a jog.
For most of the show, the boat is occupied by Alexi Morrissey, the artist and performer who conceived Take a Letter and shaped the experimental work with collaborators from actors to roboticists. Take a Letter, part of the New Hazlett Theater's Artist Residency Program, debuts with three performances May 27-29, in East Liberty's cavernous Ellis School Armory.
While Morrissey intends the robotic sculpture to live beyond the show, in Take a Letter, it's one of three characters. Morrissey portrays an author who plies his typewriter aboard the vessel; he's revealed to be a former revolutionary. Adrienne Wehr plays a secretary who works for the government the author long ago helped install, before it internally exiled him. But she has a secret, too.
The dreamlike narrative tracks the characters' relationship as negotiated through the media of the machine and the author's books, which are maritime histories. His dialogue quotes those books as well as his personal, poetic writings, some in code: "I have located the source of the blue sky. Don't despair. We have slid off the page. The present is motionless. It is no surprise that you should feel invisible."
However, about half of the hour-long work is dialogueless, including a passage in which Wehr's character fixes herself a contraband drink.
"This play is a puzzle. You get challenged to seek its answer," says Morrissey. "The codes are all in here to solve the puzzle."
The theme, he writes in press materials, is: "being unable to communicate our hearts makes us feel misunderstood, isolated, alienated, and that makes us dangerous."
Morrissey, 39, began developing the project in 2006. His background is in sculpture, but his art has often played with how art is presented and consumed. For instance, The Faces of Pittsburgh, a collaboration with Rob Long, posited photographic portraits of ordinary Pittsburghers as traveling street art.
Take a Letter's unique set-piece harks to projects Morrissey did with Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. Key collaborators on Take a Letter include technical director Long; Greg Baltus, of Standard Robot; and Peter Lambert, Morrissey's boss at Red Star Ironworks.
Morrissey plans to export the sculpture nationally or overseas, either as part of a performance work or just as art, but definitely as a cultural ambassador for Pittsburgh.
Yet if the sculpture's own meanings are elusive by design, the object perpetually inspires Morrissey. He recalls something playwright David Turkel said in 2008, during the show's development: "When you get this thing built, it's gonna tell you something," Turkel said. As the show evolves, says Morrissey, "It's already telling us everything."
Take a Letter 8 p.m. nightly Thu., May 27-Sat., May 29. Ellis School Armory, Putnam Street (off Penn Avenue near Pittsburgh Schenley High School), East Liberty. $12. 412-320-3610 or www.NewHazlettTheater.com