Philly actor and 11th Hour Theatre Company cofounder Steve Pacek has a bright face and an easy smile — the type that makes it seem as if all is right with the world.
And yet, on May 31 at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, this young lion of the Philadelphia stage dips into the saddest, not-so-far reaches of his history with the interdisciplinary, nontraditional theater piece, “[Untitled] [Project] #213.”
“When we first did [Untitled] at the Fringe Festival in 2010, it involved mime, original music that the actors played live, clowning and dance,” said Pacek. “It immediately became this expressionistic piece, involving all of our skillsets as performers, but focusing on verbal storytelling the least.”
Miming, song-strung storytelling and nonverbal cues paint a compelling portrait of pain and loss and what it means to cope for Pacek, even now. At its heart, “[Untitled] [Project] #213” is a story of “learning how to carry on when true love goes missing,” and serves as a love letter to such loss.
The person at the center of this story is Jorge Maldonado, a fellow actor and Pacek’s partner of four-plus years, who died in 2007.
“He was pretty awesome,” said Pacek. “He was an amazing performer, and the type of friend who just knew when you needed a great big hug — a genuine, strong, Texas-sized hug. His great talent was equaled by his humanity.”
Known for his work in “Grease” at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in Marlton and “Man of La Mancha” at Walnut Street Theatre, and a 2003 iteration of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” at the Arden, where he met Pacek, Maldonado also worked stages Off-Broadway, at the Manhattan Theatre Club and at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
“I lost my first love right before Christmas of 2007,” Pacek recounted. “It was a tale of having someone here one second and gone the next. There was no reason. The year following that was a blur. I simply don’t remember much. As an artist and as a human, I was struggling.”
Slowly, as Pacek came through the fog of that experience, he decided to shake things up “and make fresh choices.” He moved out of his parents’ house in the suburbs.
“I had to go there after Jorge died, because I couldn’t bear to be in our apartment alone,” he said.
Pacek decided to camp with two Philly friends, Dan Kazemi and Jenn Rose — a composer and a choreographer, respectively, and co-creators of #213 — at their home in Pennsport, where the three hung out, “playing our ukuleles and doing little dances on the couch.”
That friendly communion and those “random house creations” helped Pacek find a new way forward as he wrestled through loss.
Although “[Untitled] [Project] #213” contains epiphanies and joys, Pacek said it’s not an easy experience to embrace every night. The actor described a moment in the show — “viewed through the magic of theater and the suspension of disbelief” — where the ensemble brings Maldonado to life again for a fleeting minute.
“That always gets me the most,” said Pacek. “But it’s nice to feel his presence there. I use words that he once wrote to me in a card, and those words appear through projection so as to bring him to the stage. I call actors ‘emotional warriors’ because we have to be able to fight our way through all sorts of feelings. That’s one of the most beautiful and hard moments to do in ‘[Untitled] [Project] #213.’”
The loss of a loved one was a jumping-off point, he added.
“The composer, Dan, usually bases his work on mathematics, say, 2-1-3, and wherever that falls on the scale. He made a melody that turned into the show’s theme, and a group of friend-dancers began playing around with Jenn’s ideas. We started an opening scene on a beach, with friends talking about love and loss — could be any loss, be it breakups or people moving apart. Actors speak their poems. Dancers dance their poems. And we blossom forth from there.”
“[Untitled] [Project] #213” is performed through June 2 at Theatre Horizon in Norristown. For tickets and more information, visit theatrehorizon.org.