The small black box is swaddled in thin drapes, streaked with watercolor branches. The fabric winds its way toward the ceiling, where it hangs like acoustic panels for an orchestra or a Milky Way made out of linen.
“This is a play that traverses the landscapes which form us and allow us to come into our own.”
From Feb. 18 to 20, the Barnard Theater Department livestreamed “On Loop” from the Glicker-Milstein Theatre. Written by Charly Evon Simpson and directed by Alice Reagan, the play follows Jo, played by Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, CC ’21, as she grieves the loss of her grandmother and her childhood best friend Mink, played by Theodorus Elfaizy-Phillips, CC ’24.
She hikes along a metaphorical mountain trail, weaving in and out of memory. With pink sunsets by lighting designer Stacey Derosier and a set like an art installation by scenic designer Lex Liang, “On Loop” is the magical fourth commission of the New Plays at Barnard initiative—and the first piece of in-person theater since the start of the pandemic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “On Loop” is also Columbia’s first piece of theater with the cast in face masks. The cast orbited around each other, carefully maintaining a six-foot distance. Even throwing objects across the room became a department rule; during the opening night talkback, Reagan explained that if you were close enough to hand someone a prop, you’re too close.
The play begins with a land acknowledgment: The Barnard and Columbia campus occupies Lenapehoking, the stolen territory of the Lenape people. Chorus members Blessing Utomi, CC ’22, and Gigi Silla, BC ’24, urge audience members to educate themselves on their local land histories and organizations fighting in their regions for environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty. A dissonant, scraping viola punctuates their words with hollow, percussive clicks. Sound designer Daniel Baker opens the show with anxious orchestral tuning, which then slides into a hurried, string-heavy score. Composed especially for “On Loop,” it sets a gorgeous, yearning tone for the performance.
Grammie, portrayed by Asha Futterman, BC ’21, is the only character not physically present on stage. Projected onto a screen upstage, just past the sheer curtain, she is surrounded by trees and tiny fireflies. Glowing in her moon-like window, she speaks to Jo in a warm, gentle voice all the way from California. Futterman actually had to cut off every preceding line of dialogue to prevent buffering pauses—an invisible, fragmenting side-effect of the hybrid production.
“I find it so helpful to have Grammie placed in that way,” Simpson said. “We get to feel as though she is sort of in another plane. Because she is! I don’t mean this in a negative way, but she haunts the play with her presence. Having her projected like that onto the fabric of the scrim was just a beautiful way of really highlighting [it].”
While the positioning of the screen is brilliant, it means the audience cannot see her hands. Throughout the play, Grammie is weaving a garland—a long, floral braid that eventually stretches across the stage. In the script, she sits in the corner, sewing it like a quilt.
ZZ plants—a common flowering houseplant—play an important symbolic role in “On Loop.” The first plant comes in the form of a parting gift from Mink. The exchange is awkward, and the gift is random and goofy. But then Mink goes missing, Jo stops visiting the forest, and houseplants become the only bit of nature she has left. By the end of the play, there is a whole herd of ZZ plants crowded center stage.
“We talked a lot about that and about how the garland feels like a vine of memories and comforts, whereas the ZZ plant is this one particular memory repeated over and over and over again,” Simpson said.”
The forest of “On Loop” is not just a metaphor for memory, nor is it a terrain for some kind of psychic search: Jo pulls on wool socks and boots for an actual hike around Glicker-Milstein, summiting small wooden chairs and scattering soil from a Ziploc bag. Ensemble members extend real branches, collected from Riverside Park. The play is a meditation on the untranslatable beauty of nature, but it’s also an open invitation to go take a walk outside.
“Everyone in the play is a guide for Jo. … I wanted to personify all those feelings someone may have, when you feel like you’re being pushed to go do something, [when] you feel like the universe is doing it,” Simpson said.
She describes the Forest Ranger, played by Surya Buddharaju, CC ’23, as a stage manager, narrator, and even the universe itself. He guides the audience, marking out moments of déjà vu like checkpoints on a trail. Pieces of dialogue repeat themselves, echoing throughout the play. “Oh, it’s this moment,” the Ranger will say, perched on a stool in the background. He reminds us when we are physically traveling and when we are circling a memory.
“Sometimes the most dramatic, difficult moments in my life have also been the funniest. Not because things are actually funny, but like—you just need to laugh. You need to get that energy out,” Simpson said.
In the script, below the mystical swirling, botanical paintings by Hilma af Klint on the cover, there is a little inscription. Simpson writes that “this may be more of a ritual, a searching, a release, a healing, a yearning … than a play.” Beyond its indescribable feelings of momentum and claustrophobia, “On Loop” asks the audience to take a deep breath—and to try laughing in the midst of grief.
“The burden isn’t any lighter inside,” Jo’s mother tells her. “And the inside doesn’t have sunsets.”