Eye of Light is delightful weirdness

by Amy Kingsley

“The way this was presented to me was that they wanted a play with spectacle,” Aubrey Simpson says, “painted actors, giant puppets, burlesque and something to do with a spiritual journey.”

Simpson, the playwright and director for Opening the Eye of Light, is drinking coffee from a paper cup. He’s nervous. Later tonight he’ll be down the street at 2 Art Chicks, running two of his actors through their paces. It’ll be the first production Simpson has helmed in 15 years.

And it’s a doozy.

Ask Simpson what audiences can expect when they come to see the show, which is part of the fifth annual Greensboro Fringe Festival, and you’ll get an answer that veers from mythology and mysticism to theoretical physics. The technical elements are as disparate as the scriptural influences: video, body painting, singing, dancing and a giant reflective eye. All of which are slated to fill the stage at the Broach Theater on Feb.2-3.

The enterprise is as high-minded as a Jungian romp through sacred psychology and as full of earthly temptation as a post-apple Garden of Eden. One of Simpson’s collaborators, Madelyn Greco, sits opposite the director, her fish-netted knees crossed.

“She’s a natural actor,” say Simpson of Greco, one of his leading ladies.

Her training as a performer has thus far consisted of several years on the burlesque circuit, a vocation that found her in Pittsburgh and that she has pursued all the way down to Charlotte.

Simpson, on the other hand, trained in theater during his undergraduate days at Eastern Carolina University where he discovered the experimental theater of Jerzy Grotowski, Julian Beck and John-Michael Tebelak.

He worked with the latter at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where Simpson served as playwright-in-residence. He quit the theater in 1990, when he moved back to Rockingham County to be closer to his parents. At the time he thought he wanted to focus on less collaborative undertakings.

“As it turns out, it was the collaborative aspect of this that appealed to me,” he says.

Greco’s contributions to the piece include more than just her performance. Alongside partner Scott Fray, she will paint performer’s bodies.

“Since the patriarchal age,” Simpson says, “the body is something we’re ashamed of.”

The art of burlesque has helped Greco overcome her own body-image issues, but in this production the unconventional costumes are more than just a mind-opening gambit.

“The paint is integral to moving the story forward,” Greco says.

As the characters progress through their spiritual awakenings, the markings will change, adding literal layers to the performers’ costumes. Greco and Fray are uniquely qualified to do such on-the-fly painting – they earned the world record for most bodies painted in a day, according to Guinness.

Onstage, Greco will be charged with illuminating the central question.

“What does it mean to us as individuals and as a society now that we are entering the ‘Age of Aquarius?'” Simpson asks.

Those who only know the “Age of Aquarius” as a show-stopping number from the musical Hair might be surprised to find out that it is also an era – now upon us – ruled by the planet Uranus. Inside the old Broach Theater, Simpson, Greco and more than a dozen other cast members plan to illuminate the uninitiated and ideally send audience members down a path toward higher consciousness. But amidst the journey to discover what it all means, Simpson can already count a smaller find about the more limited world around him.

“I’ve discovered there really is a community of artists in Greensboro,” he says. “Two Art Chicks has offered their space and the Unity Church is letting us use their gym. There is a faith community here too that, along with the arts community, shares an interest in discovery.”

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