In Review: “The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff”

You enter a dimly lit theater. The stage sits dark, minimally dressed. Scattered papers outline the borders of the floor and a labyrinth is projected centerstage. Upstage, four flat panels connect on the wall to create a large screen. The sole actress enters stage left, dressed presumably as a tourist. A recorded voice both orients the audience and directs the actress in the format of an audio-guided tour. “The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff” officially begins.

Consuming Goods, Consuming Football

Playwright and actress Emma Ackerman takes her audience through a series of events and items we glorify. The show is based on a religious pilgrimage, one that takes Emma through various stops on her journey. Modes of travel are widely represented between each stop. Each stop invokes the rushed feelings that often occur on mass transportation. Additionally, all segments of the journey are marked by a new scene and a new lesson for the audience. In an early scene entitled “The All-Natural Holiness Emporium,” the screen behind Emma shows a supermarket and a recorded voice invites patrons to try the store’s organic products. In contrast to the sincerity of the voice, comedy features prominently in this scene. The audience laughs when Emma sticks her hand into a tub of butter while a disembodied voice tells her that this alleged body cream acts as a panacea for life’s woes. This scene analyzes the role consumerism plays in our world. Movements to buy organic and to shop locally abound, but to what end?

The play later explores our national obsession with major league sports.  The scene called “Sacrament of the Ball of Foot ” has Emma eating chicken wings and sipping from a can of beer while trying to satisfy the football gods. Her exaggerated movements indicate her role as a confused tourist. She tries to enjoy the game but doesn’t entirely understand its rituals.

For the Love of Technology

A scene entitled “The Sacrifice” brings the climax of the show. The panels behind Emma begin buzzing with static. Images do not appear onscreen as we expect. Instead, Emma realizes she must make an offering to an indiscernible technological deity. Assuming that cash is the answer, Emma pulls a wallet out of her backpack. When cash and credit cards don’t satiate the blaring screen, she considers alternative avenues. Headsets, a kazoo, and articles of clothing neglect to quell the static. Finally, the tourist must part with her travel essential: her cell phone. In doing so, she loses the selfies taken throughout her pilgrimage. As Emma places the cell phone in the sacrificial pile, the buzzing stops. The screen goes black. She is able to finish her pilgrimage.

Don’t Forget Your Souvenirs

In a potential nod to Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, the play ends with “The Gift Shoppe by the Exit.” Tourist-Emma is repeatedly encouraged to purchase a magnet to commemorate her time spent on the pilgrimage. Going full-circle from the opening of the play, we return to the role of consumerism in our lives. Emma does not speak once during the performance. Dramatized physical movements work in tandem with various voice recordings to produce the action of the play. And yet, it never feels as though the speaking actor is missing.

By the end of the show the audience sits wondering how to proceed: is it wrong to consider material goods holy? Do we falsely deify our technological possessions? “The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff” is clever in its rhetoric. By portraying socially aggrandized events in such an overt way, the play effectively calls us out for worshipping outlandish things. On the whole, this show was certainly a successful first solo endeavor for Emma Ackerman.

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