IMPRESSIONS: Third Rail Projects in "Return the Moon" on Zoom

IMPRESSIONS: Third Rail Projects in "Return the Moon" on Zoom
Cecly Placenti

By Cecly Placenti
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Published on October 11, 2021
Photo courtesy Third Rail Projects

September 22, 2021

Creation: Alberto Denis, Kristin Dwyer, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, and Tara O’Con

Performance: Alberto Denis, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Tara O’Con

Conception and Direction: Zach Morris

Choreography: Marissa Nielsen-Pincus; Alberto Denis, Joshua Gonzales, Justin Lynch, Zach Morris, Tara O’Con

Sound Design and Original Music: Sean Hagerty

“Once upon a time, you, me, all of us, we found ourselves in a village. Now this was a long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that the sun hadn’t been born yet. And all we knew was night. And the moon …“

Third Rail Projects’ Return the Moon begins like nothing I have experienced on Zoom. Part storytelling and part celebration, the interactive virtual experience connects people through shared memory and metaphor when quarantines and social upheaval have highlighted disconnection.   

There are four panes in a Zoom presentation. From top right clockwise, they include a paper cutout of a tree, hands on a piano, a hazel eyeball, and a shadow silhouette of a person holding a candle.
Screen grab from Third Rail Projects’ Return the Moon.

As audiences log on, a chat box pops up with instructions: Make sure you have something to drink. Get comfortable. In breakout rooms, we meet our hosts and gather in the boxes on our screens. We peer into each other’s living rooms and office spaces. Occasionally a curious pet wanders in front of the camera. Intimacy blossoms.

Performer Joshua Gonzales invites us to converse in the chat. How are we arriving? What are we seeing from our windows? We are encouraged to make our spaces as dark as possible. He reveals an image of our setting for the evening: a small paper shadowbox of a house with a window and a stark white moon behind tree branches.

Beyond the trees, you can see the houses of a village.

Two small white paper house with high roofs and a windows rest on a surface.
Return the Moon. Photo courtesy of Third Rail Projects.

Soft, hypnotic piano music plays as we close our eyes and imagine our childhood kitchen and a food we have been longing to eat. We picture a building where we hear familiar voices calling to us. As more prompts are given, we move from joyful memories to anxious scenarios: searching for something we can’t reach, moving through a thick fog. We record it all in the chat box. It feels sacred.

Back in the main room, four performers — Alberto Denis, Justin Lynch, Tara O’Con, and Gonzales — weave our shared fears and cherished memories into a timeless tale of uncertainty and comfort, change, and community. We are characters in this story.

Suddenly, I am transported to an ancient time and place. Seated around a fire on a dark night under a bright moon, I feel crisp air on my cheeks though I have not left my warm living room. I nearly smell burning wood and rotting leaves from my couch. The performers have created a time and place that is palpable.

Part of a face shows against an illuminated background. Resting on a table, one hand clasps the thumb of the other
Return the Moon. Photo courtesy of Third Rail Projects.

The performers, in four separate Zoom boxes, begin to move, smoothly at first, then with agitation. The narrow viewing perspective dictates our focus and draws our attention to small movements: the folding and unfolding of hands, fists tapping on tables, fingers spreading. The dancers share the same movement vocabulary but not the same space, reinforcing isolation. Occasionally a camera goes dark then lights up like a searchlight beckoning companionship.

As the story continues, a bog creeps in, bringing whispering shadows. In the village, we try to fortify ourselves against this darkness by capturing moonbeams in jars. Although this is imaginary, part of the story they are telling, soon the shadow and light play becomes less apparent, and the moon disappears altogether. Functioning as both participants and audience members, viewers give voice to these whispers. In them, I hear COVID vaccine conspiracy theories, mask shaming, and outcries over the Texas abortion law. As the whispers grow louder and the shadows deeper, the darkness becomes a chasm we cannot cross.

There are four panes in a Zoom presentation. From top right clockwise, they include a goblet of wine, a man dancing in a doorway, a black box, and a silhouette of woman's face in profile against cutout tree branches
Screen grab of Third Rail Projects’ Return the Moon.

A peaceful humming begins in the darkness, and one by one, the performers join in, giving sound to our redemption. In the village, we come together, releasing our captured moonlight from its jars, singing songs of comfort, and cooking for one another. We remember how the moon was lost and found again, and raise a toast to all that is good and bright. “To the red door of my childhood home. To dreaming about my father who has passed. To my grandmother’s spaghetti and meatballs. To my window overlooking the Sydney bridge.”

Seamlessly our memories from the chat box become the final toast, specific and universal healing moments. We realize how transcendent small things are; how, despite external differences, underlying emotions unite us all — love, mourning, comfort, and beauty.


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