Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fasten Your Seatbelts And Hang On Tight!

As LGBT Americans wait for President Obama to "evolve" on the issue of same-sex marriage, two highly theatrical stage presentations are focusing their audience's attention on the passage of time.
  • While creationists seek to deny the validity of evolution, one show uses its exceptional arsenal of creative talent to build a production around an evolutionary theme.
  • While Bay area residents roll with a series of small earthquakes as they approach the end of Daylight Saving Time, a tiny experimental theatre company wrestles with the concept of "time quakes."
  • While an actor insists that the sharpened wires stuck in her arm like needles feel like "just the tiniest of pricks," a clown lies down on a stage across town, points his digital camera at the crotch of the actor looming over him, and takes his best shot. As he checks to see how well the picture came out, the clown turns to the audience with a disappointed face, touches his thumb and second finger together and sighs, "Naaah, piccolino -- he's no Italian!"
Different strokes for different folks? Or is time running out for the human race?

* * * * * * * * *
It would be all too easy to imagine that Sticky Time is about the process of drug withdrawal. All the right clues are there -- from needles in the arm to mental blackouts, from fierce cravings to erratic behavior. But one should never underestimate Marilee Talkington, the playwright, actress, and stage director who heads up Vanguardian Productions.

Together with her colleagues at Crowded Fire Theatre Company, Talkington has created a new "theatrical immersion" experience in which her audience is seated on swivel chairs in the Brava Center's small black box theatre while her cast performs on a U-shaped platform around them. Sometimes the actors disappear through slits in multiple layers of fabric that are part of Andrew Lu's unit set; sometimes they reappear in a video sequence and interact with the people onstage.

Rami Margron and Lawrence Radecker in Sticky Time
(Photo by: Dave Nowakowsaki

As one of the few visually impaired playwrights and directors, Talkington's work delivers a very different experience than most traditional theatrical concepts. A fiercely ambitious artist who is legally blind, she brings a unique perspective to theatre in which sound is of critical importance. The fluid visual landscapes seen by her audience can be blurry, confusing, or quickly shift in shape.

Add to this production a curious use of fiberoptic cables and thread, a complex, multidirectional soundscape designed by Colin Trevor (with music composed by Chao Jan Chang) and the contributions of videographers Lloyd Vance and Rebecca Longworth. The end result is that the audience becomes part of an intense, near-hallucinogenic experience that resembles a bad acid trip.

Rami Margron as Thea in Sticky Time
Photo by: Dave Nowakowsaki

There is, however, a story struggling to exert itself amidst so much aural and visual stimulation. A woman's desire to live anywhere except in the moment threatens to shatter her confused family's past, future, and the world's reality. As dramaturg Laura Brueckner explains:
"Pieces of time stick together, but the fit isn't perfect. Whenever you measure things, there are discrepancies and areas of uncertainty. While a 'time quake' is an invention of Marilee's creative exploration, its causes and effects exploit some of the possibilities of a universe full of mismatched environments of time, when a number of them are drawn together and 'trued up' (sometimes violently) by an event of significant pull.
Many plays present events in a nonchronological order. Sometimes time leaps ahead, sometimes a flashback pops us into the past. Sometimes the same event or moment repeats multiple times. So how do playwrights and directors show that a moment in time is repeating in a play? They put everything back exactly where it was.

If, sitting in the audience, we see all of the actors, set pieces, props, lighting, and sound suddenly return to positions and settings identical to those they held in a previous moment, we usually understand that that moment is literally happening again -- or rather, we are back at the first happening of that moment. It's time travel.  Sticky Time gives this convention an extra twist. As its repetitions vary, break down, and scatter, each iteration invites us to wonder how time is functioning (or malfunctioning) as well as to question our previous assumptions about the causality, chronology, or factuality of the dramatic events we've witnessed so far."
Michele Leavy in Sticky Time
(Photo by: Dave Nowakowsaki)

While Thea (Rami Margron) is initially depicted as a control freak, as she kept sticking wires in her arm in order to get an other-worldly rush of energy, I found myself reacting to Sticky Time as a sci-fi interpretation of how the fierce grip of addiction can warp a user's perceptions, ruin his relationships with family, friends, and co-workers (Lawrence Radecker and Michele Leavy), and eventually steal precious time from the addict and everyone in his life. Time that can never be recovered.

Sticky Time also features Mollena Williams as "The Only" -- a role that is definitely open to interpretation. While the production raises more questions than it delivers answers, Talkington's latest piece certainly challenges its audience.

Mollena Williams as The Only in Sticky Time
Photo by: Dave Nowakowsaki

* * * * * * * * *
Several members of the design team that helped Cirque du Soleil create its magnificent new traveling show, Totem, have also been hard at work bringing the Metropolitan Opera's new Ring cycle to fruition. It's easy to see how their artistic freedom, physical exuberance, and ability to soar (both physically and artistically) thrive in a circus environment. It's just as easy to understand some of the challenges that have faced director Robert Lepage, set designer Carl Fillion, and video designer Pedro Pires in trying to bring Richard Wagner's 19-hour tetralogy to life within the physical confines of a traditional repertory house.

Faced with an audience of hypercritical opera fans, Fillion's infamous set of planks (known as "the monster") have drawn plenty of criticism. Each time Fillion's computerized set malfunctions, it triggers the worst reactions from an expensive audience with impossibly high expectations.

By contrast, the response from a Cirque du Soleil audience (that is eager and willing to be dazzled by anything) is remarkably different. Each new daredevil stunt is met with 2,600 people gasping in awe and cheering in admiration.

On opening night, when a small mishap forced a unicyclist to dismount midway through her act, no one in the audience was the slightest bit disappointed. Instead, there was a communal sense of concern, support, and encouragement as the cyclist (with an assist from a colleague) was able to remount and rejoin the action.

Each time a new Cirque show arrives in town, one can expect to hear jaded San Franciscans whining and moaning about how they've seen all the acts Cirque has to offer. But Cirque du Soleil has always taken the lead in adapting state-of-the-art technology for its shows.

The perch poles used in Totem are made of duralumin (an alloy used in aeronautics). Some of the photographs taken of Planet Earth by Cirque's founder, Guy Lalibert√©, during his 2009 Poetic Social Mission as a space tourist aboard the International Space Station are integrated into the show.

With a cast of 51 artists from 17 countries, Totem's stunning use of video by Pedro Pires raises the artistic level to new heights that have rarely, if ever, been imagined for traveling tent productions. Whereas patterned light projections in past productions have been able to place geometric designs on the stage floor, Pires has found a way to transform the solid elements of Fillion's set into landscapes filled with bubbling lava and mud, wintry waterfalls -- even the wake of a motorboat that can change its size and shape to match the boat's speed.

Some of the projections Pires has designed can interact with the movements of Cirque's artists in real time. The technology used involves infrared cameras positioned above the stage and around the "marsh area" that can detect a performer's movement and produce kinetic effects (ripples, splashes and reflections) in the water and the flames.

Whether the audience sees a school of sharks or individual people swimming beneath the stage's surface, the effect is simply breathtaking. As Pires explains:

Fillion's intricately trapped set includes an amazing hydraulically-driven mechanical tongue (referred to as "The Scorpion Bridge") which performs elastic wonders. His use of inflatable reeds to hide Totem's musicians, canoes, and rowboats is one of the best pieces of camouflage the company has devised for this section of the stage in years.

The 2,700-pound turtle skeleton which opens the show contains two horizontal bars for Totem's acrobatic frogs. In order to create a chorus of human amphibians, the patterns and colors of various species (including the most poisonous frog in the Amazon rainforest) were replicated by pixelating their images during the screen printing process. As costume designer Kym Barrett explains:

Some of Barrett's other costumes are amazingly intricate:
  • Costumes for the five jugglers peddling around the stage on 7'2" unicycles are designed to represent the colors of the fall harvest.
  • The costume for the Crystal Man (a recurring character representing the life force who also moves props to and from the top of the Grand Chapiteau) is entirely covered with a mosaic of small mirrors and crystals (a total of nearly 4,500 reflective components on a stretch velvet leotard).
  • Each of the outfits worn by the foot-jugglers (Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova) are based on lycra body stockings (each adorned with 3,500 crystals). The headdresses worn by the "Crystal Ladies" are each encrusted with another thousand crystals.

Composers Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard have fashioned an exciting score which is enhanced by Jacques Boucher's sound design and Etienne Boucher's thrilling lighting. Whether working with a chorus of frogs, clowns, acrobats on Russian bars, or hoop dancersJeff Hall's choreography never fails to excite the audience.

A Native American Hoops dancer in Totem

Like most Cirque du Soleil shows, Totem puts some prime beefcake on display.  Early in the show, some Bollywood-inspired music accompanies two muscle hunks on a summer day at the beach as they compete  on the rings. In Act II, two young aerialists (Rosalie Ducharme and Louis-David Simoneau) pretending to be lovebirds tease each other in one of the most original pieces of choreography for static trapeze seen in recent years.

Rosalie Ducharme and Louis-David Simoneau portray two
young lovebirds in an unusual trapeze act during Totem

If you want to get the most bang for your holiday entertainment buck, Cirque du Soleil is definitely the way to go. Performances of Totem continue under the Grand Chapiteau at AT&T Park through December 18 (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Michele L. said...

Hello there!
Thank you for your lovely review of "Sticky Time". Its always a pleasure to have someone come to see the piece and write such thoughtful commentary. I wanted to clarify something just for the record. The photo of the lone actor in the blue jumpsuit is actually Michele Leavy, not Lawrence Radecker. Again, thank you for your insightful write-up!