Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Time Warp

The concept of traveling backward and forward through time has fascinated man ever since the idea first came up for discussion. Long before such movies as Back to the Future and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home were released, science fiction writers were toying with the idea of catapulting man through the time barrier so he could fight dinosaurs, visit ancient Egypt, argue with Christ and communicate with intergalactic aliens from higher forms of civilization. Recently, while watching Peggy Sue Got Married, I was fascinated by the manifestations of culture shock which resulted from time travel, particularly in the scene where Peggy Sue explained to a high school friend that "Everything will grow smaller in the future but, for some reason, radios will become much bigger!"

Perhaps because I've always been a heavy dreamer, the concept of traveling through time seems quite natural to me. When I'm asleep, my imagination takes me through dimensions which are radically different from the sensate world I know in my waking state. Even in my waking state, I've had several experiences with deja vu that were genuinely unnerving. What these experiences tend to stimulate most is thinking along nonlinear patterns. Whereas many men tend to think in strictly directional terms, my mind tends to digest thoughts and spit them out in spherical or other nonlinear patterns. As a result, there are more gray areas, more chances for indecision and -- on a few genuinely delightful occasions -- some exciting new ideas. And new ideas are what really turn me on.


Two recent productions fascinated me for their ability to stretch the dimensions of culture and language by randomly crisscrossing the barriers of time. One of the most deliciously droll and gentle comedies I've experienced in recent years has to be Eric Overmyer's On the Verge (which was seen last fall at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival). In his play, Overmyer follows three female explorers on their journey through time and space, beginning in 1888 in Terra Incognita and ending in 1955 in Las Vegas. Although two of the women decide to abandon their time travels after finding happiness in Las Vegas, Mary (the devoted anthropologist who cannot resist the challenge of the future with all its freshness of discovery) continues to move on.

For a writer who loves to play with words, On the Verge was three hours of sheer ambrosia. Why? Because, more than anything else, this drama is a game of semantics. Words and phrases which have specific meanings in one context take on quaint or confusing meanings in another. My favorite moment occurred when the three explorers, while trying to cross a rope bridge, encountered a fierce river demon. "I wonder what it must be like to go through life as a troll!" exclaimed one of the women. Although there was no way the character onstage could have known how funny such a statement would sound to a gay man who survived the 1970s, such plays on words account for the bulk of Mr. Overmyer's wit in this comedy.

As On the Verge continued to unfold on the stage of the Angus Bowmer Theatre, it became interesting to note how the audience's resistance to Overmyer's daring concept diminished. Indeed, as the three women traveled from Queen Victoria's time to Elvis Presley's heyday, theatregoers became infinitely more at ease with Overmyer's juxtaposition of words and thoughts. Curiously enough, by the time the three explorers reached the 1950s, the audience seemed to be awash in nostalgia for its youth. Although the play ended on what, for me, was an intellectual high, you'd have to share the experience to know why.

William Bloodgood's witty unit set, combined with Jerry Turner's simple and sensitive direction made On the Verge a fascinating experience in theatre. And, although Demetra Pittman and Ursula Meyer were superb as Fanny and Alexandra, I was particularly charmed by Marie Livingston's portrayal of the ever inquisitive Marie. Douglas Markkanen appeared in a wealth of supporting roles which included the aforementioned troll, the Abominable Snowman, Mr. Coffee, Madame Nhu and a Las Vegas lounge lizard named Nicky Paradise.


While On the Verge concentrated on the specific ways in which words and ideas are used in different cultures, George Coates' Rare Area constituted an exploration of indistinct sounds and visions. With music by Marc Ream, costumes by Cynthia Du Val and sets and scenic projections by Jerome Sirlin, Rare Area felt like an updated hippie light show wherein the music was sung rather than screamed and the lighting effects were enhanced by computer technology that was both unavailable and politically suspect at the peak of the Haight-Ashbury's drug culture.

Although barely an hour and a half long, I found Rare Area to be intensely satisfying as a musical light show; the kind of experience where you can let your senses be entertained without feeling any need to ask probing questions or measure the "effectiveness" of the work. From a technical standpoint, I found the event fascinating, particularly with regard to the use of Levelor-style blinds as a variable scenic element. It was also interesting to note how Native American tenor White Eagle (whose voice seemed painfully thin and undersized during the Merola Opera Program's Grand Finals two years ago) sounded absolutely magnificent when miked. Kathryn Neale's healthy soprano voice, Hitomi Ikuma's pantomime and Sean Kilcoyne's acting offered solid contributions to Rare Area.

While I wish there were words to describe the sensations I felt during George Coates' performance piece, I suspect Rare Area belongs to a form of experiential theatre where the best way to find out about it is to sit through it yourself. For readers who have not yet experienced Rare Area, I'd strongly urge doing so next time the work is presented in the Bay Area.

I should note that the radio ads for Rare Area's recent string of performances were particularly fascinating to me. Although some were broadcast to KKHI's classical audience the ads were primarily targeted to an audience of the curious, the avant garde, and listeners who are usually rather suspicious of mainline arts presentations. The marketing concept behind these ads seemed to pay off handsomely for, at the performance I attended in Herbst Theatre, the audience was easily half the age of the crowd which usually congregates in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 12, 1987.

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