‘The Forgotten Kingdom’ comes to the Island


Circuit Arts’ Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival is breaking new ground on March 21 at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center with what promises to be a memorable, live, full-length multimedia work. “The Forgotten Kingdom” will be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, which presents pieces that explore real-world tales of choices people make in times of personal or societal change.

You will see a blend of dreamlike sand animation, narrative elements that intertwine memoir and poetry, and a captivating musical score reimagining Ottoman Jewish women’s songs that plunge us into an unraveling multiethnic world. It’s told from the vantage point of a young girl who is looking back through a book of memories her mother had made for her, so that when she was grown, the woman would remember how it felt to live in their home by the sea in the Ottoman Empire, just before the upheavals at the turn of the 20th century, which, through great turmoil, led to the rise of ethnic nation-states. The memory book evokes an almost entirely lost world, where turning the pages is like rewinding time, allowing her to catch glimpses of her family and neighbors. She remembers the stories they told and the moments they shared. The pages evoke an entire way of life that — to a child — once seemed eternal, but is now lost.

This period in Ottoman history intrigues director, composer, producer, and performer Guy Mendilow on multiple fronts. He states, “If you want to understand the reason that our world is ordered into nation-states and ethnic nation-states today, then I think that this period — the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire through the Balkan wars, is the crux, right?” Mendilow believes this is pertinent to us today, as well. “We’re world straddlers because we have seen colossal shifts. We also have a foot in an older world, and I don’t know what’s in the world to come.”

He continues, “Another reason I was drawn to researching the Ottoman Empire at that time is these are the same questions of identity and those of understanding some of the tensions and dilemmas that we face in the United States today as we create a multiethnic, pluralistic society.” For Mendilow, that society is one that navigated the questions of difference and identity in a pretty different way: “And I’m interested in what it is like to live in a society that has a lot of differences, but perceives them as just a kind of de facto part of life, and even a source of strength.” His work probes questions such as how we move from there to where we are now. What is it like to live through that? What is it like to live through these colossal upheavals?

While the family may be fictitious, Mendilow emphasizes that “The Forgotten Kingdom” is based on real people, and the stories of places and times: “All this is not hypothetical. Every moment is based on a piece of architecture, or a piece of clothing, or a piece of a historical moment, or a newspaper, that actually existed.”

Ukrainian sand artist Kseniya Simonova meticulously created the mesmerizing animation by dropping sand on a light table and moving it around with her hand to create an image, which she then obliterates and morphs into another one, evolving into a flowing narrative projected onto a large set piece based on old Ottoman fabrics. “This is hundreds of hours of animation packed into minutes,” Mendilow explains. He believes theater is a living, breathing thing. Thus, in “The Forgotten Kingdom” the animation is cued off the performers, rather than the performers conforming to the projection, resulting in pacing that varies from night to night.

With a cinematic score that draws on the bittersweet rawness of tango, rhythmic Arabic percussion, and gorgeous vocal harmonies layered on Western classical music’s harmonic roots, along with otherworldly, dramatic lighting, “The Forgotten Kingdom” will be a performance to remember.

“The Forgotten Kingdom,” March 21, 7 pm, at the Performing Arts Center. For tickets, see tmvff.org/forgottenkingdom. General admission tickets are $25, $15 for students and faculty of Martha’s Vineyard public schools. To view an excerpt, visit bit.ly/ForgottenKingdomScene.