Sunday, May 16
READER COMMENT: airless & projection-free Saturday
I've read 3 reviews, now, & several comments. Isn't the distillation of "Ivanov's Dilemma" in Chekhov's play evident in the actuality of our modern "Everyman" stand-in, the astronaut, even if his Reach (as a team effort) Attains his grasp, ie The Moon? Who sees himself, like his home-planet, on "life-support", as he gazes with an ineffable, aching reverence at 'his' universe? Anna, the "world left behind" (or as Neil Young puts it, .."Mother Nature on the run..") dies to him, while Sasha, the 'vehicle' to reach his idealized happiness, bears him toward that distant INNER goal, presonified as The Moon.
What part of Everyman 'dies' when an object of desire appears to be obtained? It may be the obverse of the characteristic resort (by men, usually) to violence when confronted by a dilemma, ie philosophically talking oneself out of 'suicide-as-afterglow'... Oh, happy Day!
We had no video projection during the Saturday (5/15) performance, which likely became an inspiration for some fascinating improv; and this cast was generally up to the challenge. The piece 'worked' without it (although my guess is that some of the pantomime 'sync' cues were lost). The disjunct created by the shifting source of actual vocal presences, whether canned, spoken by one while played by another, etc was an effective way of demanding that the audience Watch more closely- which is an effective way to prepare an audience for Dance!
The 'lift-off' sound sequence really brought home an appreciation of the frailty of those adrenalin junkies who strapped themselves to the nose of a rocket & left the Earth behind... and Everything that such an act can embody. In the freedom from the embrace of gravity, there is also a hint of timelessness- of the spirit in repose (when the noise dies down...). With the journey underway, the astronaut is 'married' to the vehicle; & the relationship begins in earnest. Was it intuitive that the personal styles of both women suited their roles so well? Anna's death-throes gave us an astonishing flowing, organically developed muscularity (from an incredibly statuesque beginning) to a peak that matured into hidden, almost furtive movements, (eg a cross-body thust-kick) which created a vision of an inner spasm whose expansion would grow to consume the organism. Birth-, or Death-throes? Wet eyes, my friends...
Sasha was danced throughout like superbly designed machinery, flowing through tableaux as if she embodied the zen which carries the movement in our minds from frame to frame in a comic strip. Transitions were less flowing, more 'instantaneous'- gears shifting, deceptive sense of weightlessness, a telegraphing of Presence, perhaps, that made its actuality anti-climactic. I once reached out to touch the ear of a caged lynx, which was standing quietly beyond a hardware cloth facade, not looking at me, directly. The sound of its paw slamming the screen was the first inkling I had that the cat had moved at all; and the technique that I witnessed in the 'Sasha' dance sequences paralleled this marvel.
The suicide scene was sweetly contrived & neatly rolled up, which made the closing moments even more poignant, by contrast. The astronaut/poet's attempt to share his vision of the sun(rise?.. or set?) was beautifully modelled in a display of obeisance to the Source of our local light & presence as material Beings.
3 notes; Linas was impressive & expressive throughout- far more than just a fulcrum for the talents on either side; Gaelen looks even more like a rock star, with a mustache; & my thanks for resisting the temptation to name the owl "Madame Lebedev"...
Saturday, May 15
READER COMMENT: A Compelling Journey
Going into Sunbeam by 33fs, I didn't know Chekhov from Chaikovsky. And it doesn't matter. Set, sound, stage, lighting and wardrobe design conspired to transport me far away and back again. The 3 performers seemed in perfect sync. G's solo dance was intoxicating; her shadow projected on the wall stage-right provided a resonant echo that was itself mesmerizing. Twice as long still wouldn't have been enough. They say there was some video projection absent from Saturday night's performance. It wasn't there, true. But I don't think anyone missed it. Hail the Spells!
Friday, May 14
READER COMMENT: Checkmarks for all
Thursday 13 May 2004: Our Little Sunbeam, 33 Fainting Spells at On the Boards
This company (comprising Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson, accompanied this time by Linas Phillips and a host of designers, all earning checkmarks) continues to create imaginative, wildly integrated work. In the current offering we have Chekhov's Ivanov; NASA sound and video clips from several space missions; a lovely lunar landscape, augmented with owls; intriguing vocal acrobatics (another checkmark to Phillips); therapy sessions; rehearsal critiques; and no end of odd moments. Sounds like mud - but it's a string of little gems, capped with a spectacular dance solo by G Hanson (another checkmark, summa cum laude). These guys have such weird ideas, and they do such wonderful stuff with them - I will always try to see one of their pieces.
READER COMMENT: I have to agree with Joe in his first comment
I have to agree with Joe in his first comment. What is all this material doing in the same piece? It's as though someone was cleaning out their refrigerator and dumped everything into this piece. Many of the images in "Sunbeam" are fun, but what do they have to do with one another? And as amusing as they can sometimes be, do they amount to much more than occasional flashes of wit?
I thought post-modernism was dead. And the kitschy, self-consciously ironic stuff in this piece gets old pretty quickly. Even worse, the parodying isn't particularly biting or interesting, and I don't think you come away with very much in the end.
There doesn't seem to be much new in the ideas here - recycled post-modernist twaddle attached to some pretentiously literary references to provide a framework. Do we really need those references to make us believe that this is somehow "important"?
Still - I have to admit that it was kind of fun. I did enjoy the music, and the recordings of astronauts talking about being in space was interesting (and funny).
READER COMMENT: Artful blending of live performance and multi-media
I have watched many attempts over the years to blend multi-media with live performance, and most of them, I must say, have seemed forced and artificial. The multimedia parts seem so outside the live bits that one is constantly aware that the two are fighting for attention.
But "Our Little Sunbeam" rather artfully blends tape and video and live dialogue/dance in intriguing ways. That is - while you're still aware of the different media, they each contribute something to a greater whole.
I loved the play between dialogue spoken by someone other than the person who's supposed to be saying it and the other characters onstage. There was a point at which I even thought that each of those onstage would be voicing the parts of someone else onstage - a conversation that at once would have been complicated and telling.
What I particularly appreciated was that "Sunbeam" fractured the play into all sorts of shards of meaning. There were enough threads that you could follow the narrative, but they were woven together in a very smart way that made you consider all sorts of unexpected associations.
READER COMMENT: I loved the show
A Big Fan
bottom line, when i am sitting in a theater i'd like the relationship to remain plain---that i am in the darkened half and some enchantment transpires on the lighted half.
this is i saw and deeply loved tonight at the show. but with some anxious exceptions.
that i love what is plain and expected of the divide from house-to-stage implies i want the expectation to be defied and kinked, which 33fs are masterly for.....like the therapy session how it ended. it was heartbreaking as all kinds of gulfs were explained and then distended to a high-pitched ache, as a player complained about how he wasn't being heard, both as character and player suffering grief-in-fiction and a necessary scene change. it was magnificent.
and the space program laid onto chekov, a fabulous complication very rewarding---at all times when it emerged.
and the dancing, great vistas where the mind and eye ranged freely over all the questions.
but then there were other breaks of the divide which broke my spell, my fainting spell, where i'd been so beautifully lost, suddenly again just a guy in a theater watching someone talk about people in a theater, some on stage, most not, etc. this is an ordinary experience, and perhaps the goal.
as an exercise this is valuable. but, it's not always for me. i love to watch players tightrope the mannered languages of the stage, but moreover i personally go to the theater to be vexed and heartbroken, which the little sunbeam so much has. it has tremendous comedy too, put that on the list.
i loved the show.
a big fan
On My Chekhov List
Why wouldn’t I like a multi-media performance theatre piece set in the 70s against the moondrop of the space age? One that alternatively deconstructs Chekhov’s play Ivanov while musing on the poetry of astronauts? Hell, I grew up smack in the middle of the apathetic 70s. I know that the moon landing had it all over disco.
When I go see performance theatre, I always look for that moment that makes me absolutely certain that dance alone has the transcendent vocabulary to get at a moment of truth. You know the moment where the right combinations of story and music plus light all conspire to ignite a solitary dancer who just hits it.
Our Little Sunbeam and I was certainly amused and plenty bemused. Characterizations were mischievous mockeries or goofy parodies. One reminded me of Silent Bob’s foul-mouthed sidekick. Sasha was a perfect parody of Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance in The Royal Tennebaums wrapped in a Dianne von Furstenberg dress with her That-Girl wig. Nick was a lively pastiche of swagger, bravado, disco sleaze and lover in distress. Anna had great fun with helium.
There was great mocking fun made of therapy sessions, passive aggression, the emasculation of the modern male and even the play itself. There was a rationally negotiated suicide. There was even a rap and silly things with ham spread in space. There was very original music that smoothed the gaps between 19th century Russian angst and 20th century optimism.
But the nearest Our Little Sunbeam came to the pure pay-off moment for me was during Anna’s solo dance of death. Finally the whole piece cut itself loose from being silly and witty and smart and just danced. My mind’s eye locked on one silhouette where the dancer’s up stretched arm and bent leg formed one perfect line. Exquisitely lit, this strong, graceful image spoke of serious strength and quiet dignity.
Is it fair of me to expect that art should deliver nothing but these flashing moments of clarity and grace all of the time? Naw – I’m a reasonable person. I’m quick to applaud extraordinary effort, sharp wit and stellar technique. I really liked what 33 Fainting Spells did last night. Our Little Sunbeam is mischievous meditation about being right-sized in the universe plus it’s a story that holds up the messy matters of the heart and is both tender and mocking. In the end I was satisfied. I got my pure dance moment. But I worry: is all of this looking that I’m doing may just be keeping me from seeing what’s really there?
Thursday, May 13
"Our Little Sunbeam"
In Chekhov's Ivanov on which Our Little Sunbeam is based, Ivanov, bored, depressed, and out of love with his tubercular wife, Anna, seeks amusement and renewal of sorts at a friend's estate next door. Ivanov falls for Sasha, the wealthy young daughter of his friend, Lebedev, who, at first represents newness and interest -- there's any place but home -- but, ultimately, another round of same old, same old.
In Our Little Sunbeam the Ivanov (Linas Phillips)/Anna (Gaelen Hanson)/Sasha (Dayna Hanson) triangle is explored amidst quotes from NASA astronauts as they explore space. The early quotes sound like happy-happy platitudes and are jarring compared to the general funk in which the characters find themselves; just as in the play, the surface conventions are contrasted to the characters' inner states. Later Ivanov and Sasha begin their dance of an affair -- literally, a contained but breathless dance around each other, while Ivanov protests that they really can't be doing what they're doing -- which is juxtaposed against the astronauts' exclamations of joy, awe, wonder, and perspective. (In a PBS special on astronauts, one returned shuttle member said that being in space was like being let in on a secret.) Simple, everyday functions become a source of fascination: there is a hysterical scene in which the characters mime the astronaut's description of making food in space. But like all new things as they become familiar, towards the end of Our Little Sunbeam, after Anna has died and Ivanov prepares to marry Sasha, the astronauts' excitement has died off a bit, as they describe, in their "official" voices, having to focus on the routines and jobs they've been taught, knowing that there is something a lot more interesting outside, somewhere else, even within their grasp.
Despite the attempt at therapy, Ivanov and Anna neither become close nor break up; they are locked in an impasse until Anna dies. Anna's death scene is an extended dance, a lovely solo for Gaelen Hanson that I think is more effective in the first two thirds, when it is more contained in its staccato movement. Oddly it loses a bit of power as the music and movement become bigger, but it still remains the focal point. As in the play, Anna has more stature in death/dying than in life.
Throughout the piece there are references to reality vs. representation: the voice of the director breaking in to the stage action, a monologue by Sasha about the difference between the painting of her (quite a likeness, actually) and her true self, and a high speed run-through of all of the stage directions, culminating when Ivanov, in a modern, porous, mobile society -- one that can get as far away as space -- decides that he doesn't really have to kill himself after all. Society at large and its pressures and hypocrisy, a looming presence in Ivanov, are turned into the rather mellow and immobile confessor/gossip parrots. The isolation imposed on Ivanov and Anna in the play because, as a converted Jew, Anna's family has disowned her and the neighboring society disdains her, becomes the isolation of the modern couple in a nuclear family, with no extended family, larger society, and few social conventions and obligations to relieve the burden of coupledom. When the women insist that the script says Ivanov must commit suicide, and after asking for their help, he does, he is backing down into a role for which there is little impetus except empty convention.
I didn't recognize all of the musical references in the piece or, in particular, how every bit of dance and movement fit into the structure, but the music, dance/movement, voiceovers, and video background were never distracting and, on the whole, moved the production forward. Linas Phillips had particularly precise and fine hand movements, which were striking. With the exception of the overblown characterization of Sasha's father, who appeared twice, the piece felt tight to me, and very smart. While I loved reading Ivanov -- blasphemy!! -- I would much rather see and hear the streamlined Our Little Sunbeam than the original.
I will have less to say in the morning
I am sitting here about 40 minutes out of seeing Our Little Sunbeam. As I suspect I will have less to say after I've really thought it over, I'll write down my observations now.
"Our Little Sunbeam" combines the plot of Chekhov's Ivanov (which I've never seen, but, at the risk of seeming a philistine, it's more or less the usual Chekhov plot) with video footage, audio recordings, and quotations from astronauts in the first decade or so of American manned space flight (the latter ranging from the intentionally and successfully poetic to the confused and accidentally poetic). The program also notes that it draws on Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: Anatomy of Depression and from Bruce Nauman's video installation "Violent Incident". I'll simply have to take their word for those last two.
The (rather minimal) set is mostly Sixties Futuristic, with the notable exception of a rather tacky Seventies carpet and two stuffed owls on pedestals (who have speaking parts). The piece is framed by recordings by Neil Young ("After the Gold Rush"), Led Zeppelin (the intro to "Your Time Is Gonna Come," I believe), and Lou Reed (covering "This Magic Moment"); in other places the music is original and ranges from memorable (a piece that contains the lyrics "In a bed she's lying/I'm not crying/For the fact she's dying/I'm crying for me") to the (perhaps intentionally) dismissible. There is a lot of character doubling, with one actor performing a role while another speaks it (from onstage or off) or in synch with a recorded voice. Much (but not all) of the Ivanov material is performed in distinctly 1970s costume. And, as anyone who knows 33 Fainting Spells will expect, there is quite a bit of dance, much of it constrained to a rather mechanistic movement vocabulary; one rather beautiful (and beautifully lit) solo by Gaelen Hanson creatively combines this mechanistic vocabulary with other, more fluid movements. Another fine piece of choreography uses a dancer in a wheeled swivel chair; other dances use, respectively, an oxygen tank and hose, a microphone stand, and objects manipulated on strings to simulate weightlessness.
Oh, and besides the character doubling and some onstage costume changes, the members of the cast occasionally break character and discuss the play or the rehearsal process, etc. Or break halfway out of character: is it the actress or the character telling us she is "so sick of this play," of the inevitability of the same foolish actions being repeated? (Oddly -- to my mind at least -- the actors are in higher affect when "discussing" the piece than when more overtly "performing.")
I could go on indefinitely in this vein, but I'll confine myself to mentioning one more scene: Ivanov and his dying wife Anna sit in rather 70s-style couples therapy, she with an oxygen tank from which she intermittently takes loud, deep breaths, timed perfectly to avoid hearing his side of things.
The performance is largely a commentary on another piece (Ivanov), but even beyond that there are times when it feels like we are receiving the notes for something rather than witnessing the thing in itself. Sometimes this is overt, as in a dance piece based solely on the Chekhov's stage directions for his title character, or when Linas Phillips turns to us and says, "In the play, this is the part where my character kills himself." At other times this is more subject to interpretation, as in certain danced passages where the movement vocabulary is so limited as to seem (to me at least) more like a description of a dance than like the dance itself. (But dance is not my field of expertise. Others may see this quite differently; I'll be interested to hear.)
But what is all of this material doing in one performance piece? It is successfully held together by attitude, physical exuberance, and style, but does the NASA material have anything more to do with Ivanov than with anything other suitably "serious" play? Is there a clear reason for any particular character doubling, or for places where we see the actors on video rather than performing live on stage? Or is the piece simply an attempted solution to an arbitrary problem, like an improv group that takes three unrelated suggestions from an audience and has to weave them together? An improv group doing that in realtime almost always gets either low humor or a failure. Taking more time, 33 Fainting Spells create something far more interesting, but not necessarily a lot deeper: the depth of the piece seems to come mainly from the borrowed material, over which 33 Fainting Spells have added an interesting surface, worth seeing for its own surface pleasures, but only a surface.