Tuesday, February 20, 2018

162 (2017-2018): Review: FLIGHT (seen February 19, 2018)

“A Modern Odyssey”

Warning: The following describes an uncommon theatre experience whose methods you may wish to discover for yourself. If that’s you, and you don’t want to read further, I’ll say only that Flight is a brief, excellently produced, nontraditional presentation about the experiences shared by two Afghan boys fleeing to England and presented not by actors but by miniature figures and scenic models. The production won an award at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For those who want more detail about the experience, read on.

Photo: Vox Motus.

The walk from the nearest subway to the Hotel McKittrick, a former warehouse, over on W. 27th near 11th Avenue in one of Chelsea’s less frequented sections, may not appeal to many theatregoers, especially older ones hiking there in inclement weather. 

However, after seeing Flight, an unusual theatrical experience created by the Scottish company Vox Motus about a pair of Afghan boys fleeing to the West, they’re likely to look forward to their return trip when they realize the insignificance of their trek in comparison to what the protagonists endure.

When you arrive at the McKittrick, you may see a long, barely moving line snaking down the block. It’s there to see, not Flight, but Sleep No More, the immersive, Macbeth-inspired presentation that’s been playing since 2011.

A bit further down the block, right in the middle of the queue, is another doorway to the same building, which you can enter at once, without waiting in line. It leads to a small lobby where a tiny elevator, operated by a black-garbed attendant, takes you to a second lobby, resembling the interior of an old-time, European train station, including picturesque telephone booths. I felt like I was in a Wes Anderson movie.

After you get your tickets, other very polite, black-clad attendants quietly guide you through dimly lit, ghostly corridors, past mockups of old-fashioned train cars on either side, to another station-like coat-check area, where a much-used luggage truck leans against the wall near an antique scale piled with vintage valises.

Once you’ve checked your belongings you’re ushered into one of the train cars you previously passed, where you wait with a small group of others to be summoned across the corridor into a different car. You sit silently with the group on a leather banquette-style couch as one by one, separated by several minutes, people in the group are summoned to another room.

There, in the darkness, you’re asked to sit alone in a petite cubicle, with black walls to either side. In front of you, is a black wall with a window-like opening lit by a horizontal streak of white light outlining vaguely defined forms. You’re given a headset and soon begin to hear composer/sound designer Mark Melville’s remarkable mix of sound effects, narrative (spoken by Emin Elliott), dialogue, and music that accompanies what you’re seeing.

And what you’re seeing is the story of the orphans, 15-year-old Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey) and his eight-year-old brother Kabir (voiced by Nalini Chetty), adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s 2012 novel, Hinterland. The boys run off from their war-torn nation with $2000 and little more than the clothes on their backs in an attempt to get to relatives in London via Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, and Paris.

They encounter awful experiences, including being shanghaied to do forced labor on a farm, and one of them being sexually abused, but they also share a few good times, like when they’re able to take a swim, or when a group of American young women in Paris buy them sneakers. On the whole, though, they suffer mightily as, using various subterfuges, they creep ever nearer to their goal. The story, based on Brothers’s interviews with numerous refugees, encapsulates the experiences of actual people into the odyssey of these fictional Afghan boys.
Photo: Vox Motus.
Most remarkably, their adventures are represented not by living actors, nor even by puppets, but by exquisitely rendered tiny sculptures of people, places, and things. These are placed within a series of diorama-like, square and rectangular openings that slide by very slowly, inches from your face, each little window brilliantly lit with miniscule instruments by designer Simon Wilkinson. The openings are built into a huge, revolving, drum-like or carousel structure that allows perhaps 25 people at a time to sit around it, each seeing in turn what the person just before them witnessed.

Sometimes only one opening appears, sometimes more. Cinematic methods are used, with close-ups, medium, long-shot, and birds-eye effects; human figures look to be anywhere from half an inch to two inches tall, with background persons often seen as silhouettes. Cars, trees, mountains, trucks, rubber rafts at sea, fruits, architecture, clouds, sky, planets, and whatever else is needed, no matter how grand or how minute, fill frame after frame.

The models are mostly realistic, often with awesome detail, but frequently distorted for emotional effect, like the urban buildings that curve threateningly over the boys, or the scenes that suggest etchings on glass, or the depiction of French security personnel as impersonal, threatening birds. (Rebecca Hamilton is the exceptionally gifted co-designer and lead model maker.) Birds, in fact, are a consistent visual motif, often representing freedom but also suggesting oppression and death.

The narrative of Flight has frequent ellipses that fail to explain transitional gaps in the story, and we have to fill these in ourselves or simply take it for granted that the story, for all its apparent literalness, is not always meant to be taken literally. A lot has to be crammed into its mere 45-minute presentation (which allows for multiple showings every day).

The presentation reminded me of a far more spectacular but in certain ways similar proto-theatrical genre, the 19th-century panorama; it also has a hint of the old zoetrope device. Regardless, I’m afraid that, however well-done Flight is, it’s easier to become absorbed in its artfulness than to become as deeply invested in it emotionally as would be the case were it presented as, say, a movie.

Still, Flight, directed with theatrical imagination and delicate sensitivity by Candice otand Jamie Harrison, is, on its own terms, an impressively original articulation of the plight of innocent refugees fleeing the world’s disaster areas while suffering the cold shoulder of international disdain. It avoids polemics or Pollyanna solutions in favor of focusing on two children as symbols of the many thousands like them seeking security by leaving country after country.

Flight leaves it up to us to consider the tragedy of these invisible souls who, each in their own way, seeks asylum from the poverty, bloodshed, famine, or corruption in their native lands.  

Perhaps the best way to conclude is by repeating the following program note:

As of May 2017 the United Nations Children’s Fund counted 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children moving worldwide. These are the documented cases. Of these 100,000 were caught trying to cross the US-Mexican border and 170,000 lone child refugees sought asylum in Europe.


McKittrick Hotel
530 W. 27th St., NYC
Through March 25

"Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?" (7)

Because of the individual nature of this experience, I was unable to ask a neighbor for his or her reaction.