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For these shows, take a hike
A view of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, on Sept. 9, 2020, along the path featured in “Cairns,” a sound walk created by the singer and scholar Gelsey Bell. If you participate in a sound walk and no one is there to applaud, does it count as theater? Our critic argues that it does. Or at least that it can. Sasha Arutyunova/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- There’s a moment late in “Cairns,” a lovely, peaceable sound walk created by singer and scholar Gelsey Bell and presented by HERE Arts Center, in which Bell will ask you to do something drastic: Take out your earbuds. Maybe that doesn’t seem so extreme, but when was the last time you put away your phone, shut your eyes, stilled the mental whirl of worries, statistics and undone errands, and just listened?

People who have tired of Zoom plays (don’t raise your hands all at once, please!), will welcome the opportunity to listen — outdoors and screen-free. After all, if a sound walk doesn’t get you into the theater, at least it gets you out of the house.

Promenade plays, in which audience members walk from physically distanced scene to physically distanced scene, have become a mainstay of pandemic theater. In “Cairns” and “Intralia, the Weird Park,” another recent audio play, you still walk — for miles — but the scenes are staged in your mind’s eye and mind’s ear only. These are participatory shows, but in a solitary and covert way that seems like some kind of theatrical koan. If you participate and no one is there to applaud, does it even count? I’d argue that it does. Or at least that it can.

Since both sound walks take place in Brooklyn — “Cairns” in Green-Wood Cemetery and “Intralia” in Prospect Park, neither too far from my apartment — I hiked them one after the other on a sunny Thursday. Actually, I began the night before, buying Bell’s album on Bandcamp and downloading the tracks, plus a map, onto my faltering Samsung Galaxy. The next morning, before the heat kicked in, I slid on some sneakers, reached for a mask, tramped the 2 1/2 miles to Green-Wood’s Sunset Park entrance and clicked play.

I’d seen Bell onstage, severe and sylphlike in the musicals “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and “Ghost Quartet,” and knew enough of her experimental music to feel curious. Still, with the anxieties of the last several months, a morning spent contemplating mortality, however vanguard the accompaniment, didn’t hugely appeal. Because at the end of the day, Green-Wood, a nature preserve and sculpture garden — and in the 1850s, an insanely popular tourist attraction — is still a cemetery.

I shouldn’t have worried. Bell couches her work in deeply humane terms, even as she looks beyond the human and toward the natural world. Even the grimmer observations are somehow delightful. Passing beneath some purple-leafed beeches, she wonders what these trees might think, “watching us short-lived meat bags the way we watch hummingbirds.”

During the walk, which lasts a little over an hour, Bell stays virtually by your side. An informed, supportive friend, she casts you as her companion, lending an aural hand to pull you onto each new gravel path. She gives precise and particular directions — take a soft left, make a sharp right — and even someone like me, with the directional acumen of a demagnetized compass, never felt lost.

Generously, Bell wants you to notice what she has noticed, and in that spirit, she takes you past a few graves like that of Do-Hum-Me, an Indigenous woman exhibited by showman P.T. Barnum; or Eunice Newton Foote, a 19th-century climate scientist; or Susan McKinney Smith Steward, the first Black woman to become a doctor in New York state. Bell also directs your eyes toward Lady Liberty, far away in the harbor, and to the bottom of a headstone that reads, “Have an egg cream.”

But she also leaves space for your explorations, encouraging you to pause the audio whenever needed. Often, in music composed with Joseph White, she lets her own talk give way to whispering, humming, chanting as her voice loops atop itself. Moving from tree to tree and plot to plot, she encourages you to make your own sense, your own story, your own theater. And even though I’m a meditation dud, the five minutes she asked me to spend just listening — to birds, leaves, an airplane, insects that chittered like a bicycle with a playing card in its spokes — left me feeling quieter.

Another 2 miles took me to the Ocean Avenue entrance to Prospect Park and the opening track for “Intralia,” from InVersion Theater, with music and sound design by Jordan Hall. At least, I think that was where I was meant to begin. “Intralia” exists as an app for iPhone users, but for the rest of us, it’s a SoundCloud link and a sketchy map. The catch: There are nine tracks and only six locations marked on the map.

The piece begins with an instrumental — ominous strings — then offers some language apparently borrowed from EPA Superfund site reports regarding the nearby Gowanus Canal, describing dangerous contaminants. What this has to do with Prospect Park, fed by the city’s aqueducts and not the canal, is anyone’s guess. (Although the cyanobacteria that has turned some of the park’s lakes and ponds a retina-jolting green seems a likely source of inspiration.)

A press release had described “Intralia” as a story of two municipal workers, Eve and Ash, who confront strange doings. Except for a throwaway line about the “good luck to be assigned here, Prospect Park,” I would never have known it as the piece never bothers to establish character or place. Other tracks reveal the discovery of entrails and hanging goat heads. Which failed to feel creepy. Because while “Cairns” entrenches itself in its surroundings, “Intralia” disregards them.

Those strings and scares elide what is authentically strange and really beautiful about this particular urban park. Walking on what was maybe the path, I saw anglers, bicyclists, CrossFit enthusiasts, children on scooters, teenagers smoking weed, a man air-drying his laundry on a piece of park equipment, and a lady acrobat balancing atop her partner’s head. I saw a memorial for the Battle of Brooklyn and an extremely pretty composting toilet. “Intralia” ignores them all.

The best examples of environmental theater (I’m thinking of pieces like “The Angel Project” and “The Dreary Coast”) take a familiar place and make you see it through new eyes. But “Intralia” didn’t seem to see the park at all, with no consideration given to who you are and how and why you might be listening.

I had hiked to the top of Lookout Hill — for a final track that never mentioned it — and when “Intralia” ended, I hiked down then walked the mile or so back home, alone again with my own internal soundtrack. (My Samsung battery held out until I reached the road that rings the park, then died.) I thought about how generous traditional theater is and how the actors, designers and directors conspire to deliver a total work of art. Sound walks don’t do that, but even within these constraints, a good one, like “Cairns,” can conjure a world and a worldview, too.

Maybe this form seems stingy — no costumes, no lights, no tap numbers, just a few words murmured in your ear — but advance the track and think of it as generous instead, a reminder not only of how much theater can give us but also of how much it trusts us to imagine, too.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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