THE ATRE REVIEW
The 41st Hong Kong Arts Festival draws to a close today. I was there last week and was able to catch two exciting shows from the US. Here's my take on them.
Einstein on the Beach.
This musical directed by Rachel Chavkin of the New York-based TEAM (Theater of the Emerging American Moment), took us from Amsterdam to the New World, from the East Coast to Las Vegas, and from the 1600s, when the Dutch West India Company (that prototype for the multinational corporation) was in its heyday, to the most recent implosion of the US economy. Leading us through that period of economic development and the construction of the "American dream" is a pair of Dutch 14-year-olds, Joris (Bryce Gill) and Catalina (Stephanie Wright Thompson), who meet and fall in love on the docks prior to setting sail for America. There, they go from wide-eyed, idealistic employees of the Dutch corporation to powerful casino owners in Las Vegas.
Paralleling their personal progress is a tale about the collapse of the US economy as experienced by modern-day casino worker Joan (Amber Gray) and her romantic interest, Chris (Ian Lassiter), a cowboy dislocated by the expansion of Nevada's Sin City.
As Joris and Catalina stake claims to virgin land, Joan and Chris see their homes trespassed upon and eaten up. The immortal hunger to strike out and widen one's horizons is juxtaposed with the mortal struggle to remain in one's home, as hope for the future flickers and dims. Narrating their stories is a figure of destruction, greed and glitz: Miss Atomic (played by Heather Christian, who's also the show's co-writer, composer, lyricist and pianist).
Founded in 2004 by a group of New York University alumni, TEAM is a company as critical of, as it is compassionate about, American ways and views. In a fittingly bombastic take on the musical form that seems to be employed here partly to poke fun at US capitalist and expansionist attitudes, Mission Drift, devised by TEAM in collaboration with Heather Christian and Sarah Gancher, also finds a way, through the boom and all the noise, through its sass and showiness, to touch and move with the harsh and poignant reality of ordinary American lives. The gospel, blues and rock songs used for the show, sometimes exhilarated and sometimes rang like heartache. The versatile cast gave a first-rate demonstration of ensemble acting; they knew how to be ridiculous and how to be real.
As someone who grew up partly in the US and still has some ties to that country, it was a bit strange to be watching Mission Drift in Hong Kong and finding myself both relating to, and getting lost in, the show. As the musical rushed through more than 400 years of American history, it sometimes muddled and alienated with its historical references. Since 9/11, more and more young Americans have been looking inward to dissect their own country, its place in the world and their identify as Americans, and have grown more conscious of the attitudes others hold toward the US. Mission Drift will continue touring outside the US until at least 2014 and, while it is doing a beautiful job at looking inward, TEAM will hopefully begin soon to look beyond America.
EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH
Premiered in 1976 at the Festival d'Avignon in France, this four-hour opera, sans intermission, was most recently remounted in January 2012 at the University of Michigan, before it began an international tour in March of the same year. Hong Kong is the closest stop on the tour itinerary for people living in this part of Asia, so it was not surprising that some individuals had flown there especially to see Einstein On The Beach.
In an interview excerpted from the book Robert Wilson From Within and reprinted in the Hong Kong Arts Festival programme, composer Philip Glass notes: "... when we did it in Avignon in 1976: When they saw it, they said, 'What the hell is this?'. By the way, we didn't know what it was, either. But people sat there for four-and-a-half hours. It's autodidactic. You learn how to see it by seeing it."
But some, or perhaps many, of us entered the theatre last weekend feeling like we were attending a significant event. I was surprised to see parents bringing their children along, but later on was amazed and impressed to see them sitting through the entire show and not looking sleepy or grumpy. This is a theatrical experience designed to allow members of the audience to leave for a break and come back and even drift off to sleep, if they are so inclined.
Composed by Glass, directed by Robert Wilson and choreographed by Lucinda Childs, with spoken text by Childs, Christopher Knowles and Samuel M Johnson, Einstein On The Beach is in the realm of sensory experience. At times, it felt like we had entered Einstein's mind _ vast, full of wonders and almost borderless. There is no plot. There were movements, small and big, words _ and whole sentences _ that were audible and almost inaudible, that initially seemed to be repeated, but then you realised how subtly the whole had grown and transformed.
Glass' transporting music, combined with Wilson's stage composition and lighting design, gave the production a breathless, ethereal feel. After the show, my friend and I found that we had both been moved by the first scene, in which the performers sang out numbers. "I didn't know numbers could be so moving," he said. And I felt the exact same way. He later told me that what had stayed with him the most was the music. For me, it was the music and the sense of infinite possibilities that Wilson's visual composition had evoked in me, the sense of being in a great expanse.
The cast comprised pre-teens, teenagers and adults of varying ages. They performed with impressive control, commitment and a lot of heart. Especially arresting were Helga Davis and Kate Moran, whose subtlety, power and focus was something of a rarity.
About the author
- Writer: Amitha Amranand