Until the Teletubbies stage Endgame or an all-kitten No Exit appears in theaters, existential crisis will never appear nearly so cute as in composer John Moran’s What If Saori Had a Party? The animated host of a children’s cartoon program, Saori (Saori Tsukada) lives out her days in a bubble. (A literal one.) Her only companion is a digitized voice, “Computer-san,” who provides wake-up calls, warnings, and philosophical conceits. “You do not know existence,” the voice intones. “For you, life is timeless.” But when Saori throws herself a birthday party, a deliveryman arrives with a peculiar present: a baby. If Saori accepts the baby, she will introduce the messiness of life—and death—into her sanitized lair.
As Moran explains in a disarming curtain speech, clutching a beer as he talks, he creates his music-theater pieces using myriad sounds and samples that he arranges into a score. If a character opens a door, he says, he’ll compose the turning of the knob, the click of the catch, whooshes, creaks, etc. This makes for an incredibly complicated arrangement, consisting of some 300 different noises every minute. Performers then mime and lip-sync the show’s thousands of sounds. “It’s a musical piece,” Moran explains, “but it’s dance in a funny way.” Philip Glass, whose sofa Moran once slept behind, has described Moran’s pieces as “pure visions.”
Moran’s method requires incredible precision from the actors. At an early performance, only Tsukada, a trained gymnast and dancer, could quite pull it off. (Katherine Brook as the baby and Joseph Keckler as the deliveryman made game attempts.) Tsukada, attired in snowsuit, ear muffs, and little red boots, has an athletic, elfin presence and a face every bit as mobile as her lithe body; she contorts her arms, legs, eyes, and mouth exactly in time to Moran’s musical cues.
A brief confection, lasting barely 40 minutes, What If Saori Had a Party? continues Moran’s recent trend away from his large-scale operas of the ’90s—performed at venues such as Lincoln Center and A.R.T.—and toward smaller, more intimate works. It also continues his longtime interest in representing characters not quite human or not quite whole; other works have concerned robots, child-men, and Jack Benny. And it marks another collaboration—likely not the last—with the luminous Tsukada. As she slides about her airless space, registering every pre-recorded shriek, shudder, whistle, and thump, she’s profoundly silly. Tsukada’s gyrations, Moran’s thorny score, and the air of candy-colored dread—what a swell party this is.