Photo courtesy of Arthur Peña.

Arthur Peña’s Experimental Musical Endless/Nameless Confronts the Unknowable

No two performances of the work, a collaboration of artists, musicians, and actors, are alike.

If you want to experience art in Dallas, Arthur Peña will lead you to where you need to go. Peña, known for his paintings and his work with Vice Palace, is exploring new territory with his ongoing collaborative musical, Endless/Nameless. The project focuses on the beauty, loss, and catharsis of encountering the death of love, and the death of a loved one.

If it sounds slightly cryptic, that’s because it is. Deciphering and decoding meaning is integral to Peña’s work, which inevitably feels like it’s searching for something.

“They’re basic questions: who, what, and why are we here? Is anyone ever going to love you again? Are you going to see your parents when you pass away? …Things that we, as humans, think about,” Peña says. “They’re very raw and real and sincere, but so real that it’s hard to talk about them because there are no answers.”

Each performance of Endless/Nameless — two shows have taken place already, with a third this Saturday at the Reading Room — explores a different idea about death, inspired by Peña’s own personal experiences. Peña wrote out his thoughts, sketching loose “scenes” that he handed off to actors, musicians, and artists. At each show, a different cast interprets the text in its own way.

“I sat down with everyone involved and had a conversation with them about beauty, loss, catharsis, and about what it’s like to live this life,” Peña says. “Through that, we had conversations about parents passing, lovers leaving, and identities being explored and shifted…I asked them to bring with them these feelings and emotions to their performance.”

There were about 30 people packed into the Reading Room, which is no bigger than a household kitchen, for the second performance of Endless/Nameless. Things got uncomfortable quickly in the crowded space, everyone breathing the same foggy air. This was also intentional on Peña’s part. Think of it as being stuffed into someone’s mind for 30 minutes. In between scenes, there were moments when it was eerily quiet and pitch black. Sometimes the audience would sit in darkness for a minute. Peña would navigate the room with a strobe light, weaving among people to turn on switches or pull out plugs. When the lights came on, they would illuminate the room in blue, red, or green hues, indicating that the next scene was about to start.

Each performer managed to captivate the audience in their own way – the way Peña had intended.

Drew Chapa and Samantha Rios played male and female lead characters that seemed to be going through a rough patch in a relationship. The production started with Chapa singing a ballad about breaking up, accompanied by a keyboard.

Artist Randy Guthmiller interpreted his scene using an overhead projector and transparent sheets of colored paper. Assuming that each of these colors had a different meaning, Guthmiller laid the sheets one by one, until there was a thin layer on the projector and a blended reflection of colors on the wall. He then took a sheet of red transparent paper and placed it over the bulb, turning the entire room dark red. He laid another sheet of red, and then another, and continued to layer it until the room became dark and the colors became unrecognizable. It created a feeling that swallows you whole.

Rios performed a monologue about her dissatisfaction within a relationship, and when Chapa and Rios reunited in another scene, they bantered about being late for something. The scene ended dramatically, on a helpless note. At the end of the show, Francine Thirteen and Netherina Noble entered a trance-like state while chanting to a higher power. The original score was performed by Jess Garland on the harp.

Saturday’s theme was about love: loss of love and the death of it. Peña said this performance had a completely different vibe from last week’s, and this weekend, it will be just as different.