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Review: Slipping into “The Library at Night” intriguingly melds public and private, quiet and activity

The props make the difference in "Hidden Away." (Photo by  by Bobbi Jo Brooks)
The props make the difference in "Hidden Away." (Photo by by Bobbi Jo Brooks)
The props make the difference in "Hidden Away." (Photo by  by Bobbi Jo Brooks)
The props make the difference in “Hidden Away.” (Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks)

What might happen in the library at night, after the patrons leave, the doors are locked and the last librarian goes home? The question gets an inventive answer in the Lucky Penny’s latest production, “Hidden Away: The Library at Night,” running at the Decatur Library (after closing time, naturally) through Saturday, September 7. The free show was created for 12 performers by Atlanta choreographer Nicole Livieratos and Atlanta writer Phillip DePoy, who also performs in the show.

“Hidden Away” utilizes the entire first floor of the library, with various vignettes happening simultaneously in different locations. Performers move freely about the space, and audience members can likewise wander about in a “choose-your-own-adventure” sort of experience. Performances take place several times during the evening: at 30 minutes long, it’s a work that keeps things short and sweet.

I saw it at one of the 7 p.m. performances, when it was still light outside, and I left feeling that full darkness would be crucial to the piece’s sense of intimacy, furtiveness and coziness. Those are the elements I most admired in it, but ones that were hard to achieve and sustain under daylight conditions. (The library, especially the front rooms, gets lots of daylight, and in the early evening at this time of year, it’s still pretty strong.) The lighting design, by Brent Glenn, composed of many vintage desk lamps placed on nearly every available shelf or sill space, looked warm and intriguing but would require full darkness to become really effective.

Moments of intimacy, nearly privacy, are among “Hidden Away’s” strongest aspects. Indeed, at its best, the performance feels somehow like a solitary experience: it would be difficult for two people to enter and have the exact same experience of it. Also especially nice were various visual installations, some so subtle that I’m not sure most attendees even noticed them.

For instance, it was lovely to stumble upon a bag of lemons hanging in a mesh sack above a book open to Pablo Neruda’s poem “A Lemon,” and I loved similar installations related to work by Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges: sometimes a book was just left open to a particular page, a paragraph highlighted by covering the rest of the text with opaque paper. It took me awhile to understand that reading might be part of the event. It’s hard to say how others experienced it, but I seemed to be among a tiny handful of attendees who took this route, stopping to read the bits of text. But once I did, that’s when “Hidden Away” became strangely more vivid and alive for me.

The event utilizes a mix of professional and non-professional performers, most with a convincingly and winningly familiar “regular folks” look; they wear street clothes and are often engaged in ordinary acts, such as reading a newspaper, jotting in a notebook or writing on a typewriter. The show primarily uses four large rooms off a central corridor as performance spaces, with a few exploratory interludes, and I thought it would have benefited from spreading out more. The downstairs area could feel crowded and busy, and the show’s intimacy and sense of discovery were its primary strengths.

Illicitness, the strange dichotomy of quiet punctuated by bursts of activity, the weird blending of private and public spaces, all would have been more pronounced with a more spread-out field of activity. Many of the vignettes took place in the large rooms off the central artery, and they often seemed to employ the space pretty conventionally, with performers in one area and audience in another looking on.

I thought “Hidden Away” was compelling in its blend of private and public moments, its melding of quiet interiority and explosive intellectual activity: mini-performances of Zen stories or an ensemble recitation of the opening of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” These juxtapositions get at the heart of “library-ness.” I felt a million miles from the folksy ensemble rendition of “Flop-Eared Mule” that opened the performance: it seemed to contain a city slicker’s admiration for vintage folk life coupled with a knowing wink. It sounded like everything I’ve always disliked about the National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” Perhaps I was idiosyncratic in my dislike of that number, but for me it hit a wrong note right at the beginning that took awhile to dissipate.

In the end, the disparate elements of “Hidden Away” — text, installation, song and performance — don’t always coalesce perfectly, but the creators’ primary interest, their placement of delight, humor and exploration right at the center of the work for artists and audience alike, ultimately proves irresistible.

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