Off to See the Wizardry


Live performance is dying, lamenters have been saying for a century at least, strangled by the more alluring glitz of ever expanding technology. First it was radio, then the motion picture, then TV, and now the “digital age” that have been blamed for mesmerizing audiences and drawing them away from the finer forms of the drama, thus depriving spectators of the communal, even mystical, powers of theatrical presence. In this alarmed discourse, technology is always the enemy of the theater, an all-consuming colonizer of the superior art form.

But of course technological wizardry has always been a part of theatrical spectacle: the deus ex machina floating down to the rescue on ancient Greek stages; the elaborate 17th-century cloud machines and scenic transformations of Inigo Jones’s masques; the intricate panoramas of 19th-century America, which featured such astonishments as staged steamboat journeys up the Hudson River.

In Xtravaganza, a charming and often dazzling 70-minute paean to this tradition, the Builders Association claims four early American contrivers of theatrical spectacle as its own forebears: Steele MacKaye (the 19th-century proponent of “natural acting,” creator of the hydraulic stage and first electric light system for the theater); Loie Fuller (the turn-of-the-century dancer who choreographed light to play against human movement and the motion of fabric); Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (the Broadway impresario who constructed ornate revues with showgirls, film projections, and songs); and Busby Berkeley (the Hollywood pioneer of overhead shots and kaleidoscopic dance formations).

The Builders Association is itself an innovator in multimedia theater, using video, animation, sampled sounds, and god-knows-what sorts of computerized gizmos to produce gorgeous illusions. In its last work, Jet Lag, the group explored the dislocations of two sets of travelers—a man claiming to sail around the world but really making videos depicting his arduous voyage from his static position a few hundred miles offshore; and a woman and her kidnapped grandson, who take more than 150 transatlantic flights in an escape from pursuers as well as from the categories of space and time. In Jet Lag, the high-tech sorcery existed in creative tension with the human beings; the more they tried to harness its powers for their own fulfillment, the more they remained in its grip.

Xtravaganza, on the other hand, goes for a pure, deliberately naive embrace of the particularly American mix of spectacle and entrepreneurship, even celebrating technology as a harbinger of progress. Indeed, it pays homage to the achievements of MacKaye, Fuller, Ziegfeld, and Berkeley, using archival footage, material from their diaries and letters, re-creations of some of their acts—then delights in going them one better with devices that are infinitely more sophisticated. Actors play out a scene in front of a blue scrim stage left, and that scene is projected as a black-and-white period film on an upstage screen, complete with realistic setting filled in. Two performers cavort elegantly with big feathery fans, the screen showing them endlessly refracting into kaleidoscopic abstractions that Berkeley never even imagined.

While we marvel at today’s ghosts in the machine, Xtravaganza demystifies many of the devices of the earlier spectacles. A set of buttons attached to red lightbulbs trigger a set of sound effects—chugging locomotive, thunderous applause, fuzzy static. Actors as well as company techies operate them from time to time to support various narratives about the heroes’ travels, triumphs, and travails.

Still, the most exhilarating moments of Xtravaganza are the simplest: a flag dance in which flapping lengths of silk fly into beautiful formations, a solo boogie by Brahms “Bravo” La Fortune, whose virtuosity and joy in motion trump the fanciest machines.

To be sure, technologized mass media dominates culture now in ways that were not at all an issue more than a century ago. Xtravaganza is not interested in delving into such depths—leave that to the theorists—but in honoring, and stoking anew, our wonderful capacity to be delighted by things that look cool.

Showing Out, at the Nuyorican Poets Café, takes a look at a more sordid long-standing spectacle: strip shows. Based on an autobiographical novel by Timothy Reed, and adapted and directed by Rome Neal, Showing Out follows the tough life of Tiffany and her friends as they dance at a Times Square dive and negotiate various exploitative relationships with drug-using, layabout boyfriends. Apart from its ploddingly linear narrative, Showing Out suffers from being overly literal in its depiction of its heroines’ lives. How deeply can it critique the degradations of the peep shows when about half of the two-hour production is given over to live nude girls dancing? The able young women in the cast gyrate and strip off their bras and G-strings to thumping house music throughout the play. At least there’s a realness to the tedium and self-loathing Tiffany describes in her last-minute epiphany: “What good are looks, the toiletries, the expensive clothes, the admiring glances of men if you don’t have something in your head?”