Over the course of the average lifetime, a person takes around 700 million breaths. It may be the case, as the axiom goes, that "life isn't measured by how many breaths you take, but by how many moments take your breath away." Nevertheless, our relationship to every moment is nothing if not a baffling mixture of dreamlike wonder and prosaic incomprehension. The expression "It seems like only yesterday ..." is so much part of our discourse that it exists beyond the realm of cliché. And yet it was only yesterday that a friend described her life over the past few weeks since experiencing a terrible car accident as being "that many minutes long."
This peculiar, fender-bending correlation between our existence on this Earth and experience of time underpins Sunday Will Come. The second part of a larger cycle titled "The Future Project," aimed at exploring ideas to do with time, memory, and loss (the first part, After All, premiered last September at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), the piece brings together the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project and Campo Santo, both resident companies at Intersection for the Arts. The production weaves together vignettes by authors Philip Kan Gotanda, Octavio Solis, and Daniel Alarcón with experimental dance and live music. Sunday Will Come doesn't quite work as a piece of theater — the production, rather like life, is beset by predictability and incoherence. However, it features mesmerizing moments that help us glean an inkling of our tortured relationship to time.
Breathing is the show's central theme. Performers Sean San José and Erika Chong Shuch explore as many ways of inhaling and exhaling through the choreography as there are Eskimo words for snow. In an opening movement motif, which is later repeated, they veer between hyperventilating asthmatically and taking profound, Zenlike breaths. At times, they appear to be breathing so shallowly that they're almost comatose, while at others they use their entire bodies, sending oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of their systems through every pore. At one point, they even oscillate their hands next to their throats, like fish breathing through their gills underwater.
Some of the production's text echoes this physical embodiment of suspended animation. The words are often comically deliberate: "I am currently sitting. I have never sat in this way, in this exact way, at this exact time in this exact place before. This has never happened. This is before I stand. Once I stand, I will be standing," Shuch's character, She, says near the start of the performance with great self-consciousness. San José, as He, follows suit: "This is the moment before I stand. Okay. Now I will stand. Now I will get up. Get up. I am currently sitting."
Soon, though, the terse physical vocabulary unravels. The performers' slow, controlled movements, such as a hand raised and left hovering over a table for what seems like an eternity, shift seamlessly into flowing, tumbling sequences. One performer's head pokes through a space created by the crook of the other's arm; the situation is reversed, limbs wrap around limbs, and before long, Shuch and San José look like they're two parts of the same whole, chasing each other around like a couple of goldfish absent-mindedly swimming after each other in an aquarium. For performers who've never acted side-by-side before, the two interact like they've been sharing the stage for decades.
Speaking of goldfish, Sunday Will Come's episodic structure is largely defined by a narrative about the owners of a home aquarium who have a crisis regarding an ailing goldfish. After fretting over such details as whether to quarantine the invalid and whether it's too late to name their pets (heretofore perfunctorily identified as the Sick One and the Other One), they attempt to figure out the most humane way of ending Sicky's life.
An aquarium isn't a particularly original metaphor for the humdrum, fleeting nature of human existence; we often refer disparagingly to someone as having "goldfish syndrome." Still, there are glimpses of brilliance in the collaborators' approach to the idea. The prison blues style and bright orange details of Myong-Suk Shuch's costumes simultaneously suggest goldfish and incarceration. Allen Wilner's toxic blue-green lights create a submarine feel to parts of the piece. Meanwhile, the sickly, mottled contours of the backdrop to Joshua McDermott's scenic design bring to mind a water-damaged wall. By the end of the show, the human characters seem to have morphed into their goldfish selves. Memory fails and loss prevails.
Yet despite this bold attempt to articulate one of the most inexplicable paradoxes of human existence — the simultaneous onrush and paralysis of time — Sunday Will Come lacks the creative vigor of last year's After All. That initial production flowed flawlessly. It was also much more ambitious in scope, featuring a vast cast of extras and constantly arresting ideas, including a malevolent Santa Claus and a performer in outsize sunglasses playing a singing goldfish. Shuch reprises a snippet of the original goldfish song in Sunday, but the effect is comparatively weak. The new show's shortcomings are compounded by the repetitive nature of the structure, which moves in an endless cycle among physical, narrative, and song sequences. Singer-songwriter Denizen Kane's plaintive, guitar-strumming musical interludes touch the soul; if only we could decipher the troubadour's lyrics.
One of the goals of art is to do what we cannot physically do — to briefly stop time and hold on to a single breath — to help us recall and be conscious of the fleeting nature of our lives. After All managed this difficult feat. Sunday Will Come doesn't come close. Perhaps Shuch and her collaborators breathed all the life they needed to breathe into the subject with the first piece.