by Sergei Burbank · June 7, 2014
Of the creative minds drawn to examining the end of the world, there are two groups: those who fixate on the actual apocalypse -- how the world ends -- and those who move quickly beyond the how to examine what existence comes after. Both camps are driven by an understandable impulse: it is a fascinating exercise to discard all the signposts that we hold so familiar in order to examine the impulses that lie beneath. Are there common elements of life, of existence, that supercede the present moment? Is there any spark of our life that would continue on with those who come after us?
Trust in the You of Now: Part One, a chamber opera by Robert Boston with a libretto by Kimberly Pau and choreography by Giada Ferrone, explores these questions in the first installment of a complex, highly refined cross-disciplinary exploration. The story is told using a small orchestra accompanying a trio of singers splitting characterization duty with a company of dancers. In addition, unseen actors voice observers who more or less sit next to us in the dark, trying to make sense of what we see.
Set in the “far future,” Trust in the You of Now begins with an overheard conversation between two time-traveling astronauts, José (voiced by Pablo Narvaez) and Joe (voiced by Jay Painter), who observe an apocalyptic, war-shredded Earth populated solely (or so it seems) by two models of autonomous robots: humanoids (“new humans”) and their Predator-like drone overseers, engaged in endless construction work interspersed with what the astronauts assume is mimicry of long-disappeared human behavior. One distinctive robot, which they name Fictor (danced by Emily Wagner and sung by Alison Rose Wonderland), catches the astronauts’ attention.
Suddenly, to the astronauts’ surprise, they discover the robots aren’t alone: life emerges from a garbage dump in the form of an army of frogs. As with the robots, one frog stands out from the rest, who they name Willie Willie (danced by Maya Lee-Parritz, sung by Catherine Hancock).
The astronauts are a surrogate for the audience: just as we drape our understanding over the dancers’ choreographed movements, so do the astronauts try to assign meaning and narrative to the creatures they observe: if Fictor’s movements are an elegy to long-lost humanity, Willie Willie is an artist, dedicated to self-expression. This does not pass without consequences, as the frogs are discovered and largely slaughtered by the drones.
In the wake of this devastation, a love affair blooms between frog and robot, narrated by the observing astronauts. Fictor returns to her community and attempts to raise sympathy for the frogs’ plight, but is met with resistance. There is strife between the astronauts, as Jose tries to leave the ship, but (in a truly remarkable wordless sequence) discovers that he cannot survive on the planet surface. Separated from her love, and ostracized by her robot community, Fictor must face down the Drone Master (Ricky Wenthen) alone.
As indicated by its title, the performance presented in May at Theater For the New City was but the first installment of an ambitious and much larger production; as such, it operates less as a finished experience than a staggering proof-of-concept in a marriage of movement, music, and unconventional narrative tools -- and what a concept it is. Framed as a chamber opera, Giada Ferrone’s undulating, evocative choreography nevertheless takes center stage and refuses to relinquish our attention. Robert Boston’s eclectic score draws from multiple influences, at times jazzy, other times refrained and classical. (There are sections where his use of layered voices and slow, mournful builds reminded me of Henryk Gorecki’s haunting Symphony No. 3.) Kimberly Pau’s playful, time-jumping libretto rounds out a mind-bending experience.
Specific ingredients that deserve special mention include Rachel Blackwell’s art direction (creating whole worlds in a sparse and crowded black box setting), and the lead trio of dancers: Emily Wagner and Maya Lee-Parritz as the lovers, with Ricky Wenthen as their main antagonist; this is a demanding, and truly powerful ensemble piece, and their athletic displays are as impressive as they are emotive.
Trust in the You of Now: Part One offered an intriguing first peek at a substantial new work, and one can’t help but eagerly await the next offering by the creative team at the helm.