The Wizard of Oz, a performer tells us partway through the Builders Association’s latest piece, has always attracted innovation, starting with the 1939 film, when a new technology called Technicolor tinted L. Frank Baum’s fantasyland deep shades of yellow, red, and green. So it’s fitting that the venerable multimedia ensemble uses the classic as inspiration for a new digital concoction, Elements of Oz, directed by Marianne Weems and now playing at 3LD. The group has experimented with technology in performance for decades, and here they assemble a delightful primer on an iconic tale. But its wealth of alluring images and intriguing moments fail to get us over the rainbow — or much of anywhere at all.
This Oz begins in the 3LD lobby, where guests are instructed to log on to a designated wireless network (“Surrender Dorothy”) and download an “Oz” app, which becomes our companion during the show. The story unfolds on a film set of sorts, with a trio of performers (Moe Angelos, Sean Donovan, and Hannah Heller) assembling and shooting makeshift reconstructions of scenes from the MGM classic.
Our phones, manipulated by the company to behave of their own accord, augment the performance. We view our surroundings through a filter dubbed “Oz Vision,” which renders everything sepia-toned and rainy. The performance roughly tracks Dorothy’s progress toward the Emerald City, while other Oz-effects emanate from our personal devices: A CGI cyclone lands somewhere among the audience risers; our phones emit a chorus of high-pitched munchkin laughter when Glinda the Good Witch appears; as Dorothy and her companions succumb to the poppy fields, carpets of crimson flowers appear suddenly on our screens.
This digital wizardry could have propelled a striking performance, since even before Technicolor, Baum’s imaginary kingdom was also a filter placed over the real world — less a place and more a way of seeing things. Instead, the company spends its energy assembling information: historical context, allegorical interpretations, film-set trivia. We learn that Baum’s book has been variously interpreted as an allegory about capitalism or parable of queerness (in which Dorothy, escaping restrictive and dull Kansas, assembles a new, chosen family in glitzy, fashion-forward Oz). We hear excerpts from Salman Rushdie’s 1992 book proposing Oz as a story about immigration.
What’s hard to locate, among all the trivia and tech, is a theatrical destination — a reason for the research. As the ensemble flits from anecdote to film shot, passing around a tatty “Dorothy” wig and a stuffed terrier, these enticing tidbits never converge into a central event. The longer you sit, the more you might feel the urge to turn off your phone, head home, and cue up the Technicolor instead.
Elements of Oz
Directed by Marianne Weems
80 Greenwich Street