Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Great War (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Hotel Modern is a Dutch theater collective that has pioneered what has been called "live action animation." In effect they use tiny dolls and props in front of small cameras which project the moving image onto a large screen. The audience is there as they do this in real time, with practical special effects and voice-overs and sound recreations thrown into the mix. If that sounds intriguing, please believe me when I say the result ends up far more than merely that!

The Great War was a piece that performed at downtown's REDCAT theater. The prologue began as little more than a relatively fun introduction to events which immediately preceded the first world war. After that, actors read letters from soldiers on the front, telling their loved ones about life in the trenches, aboard submarines, guarding POWs, etc. At the same time we watch images created to demonstrate what the letters describe.

Here's one scene that gives some idea of the power of such a seemingly simple idea. We watch on screen gigantic hands place one tiny soldier after another, face down, on an expanse of wet soil. At last, hardly any soil remains to be seen. Then hands pour some pale green gelatin over all this, then they scoop in to blend it all together into a mush. A sky in the background shows sunset. Soon, lights fade on the tiny landscape, which via the camera and screen certainly look life-size. A pair of filthy legs, wearing (tiny) military style boots and army fatigues, walk one wear step at a time through that mud. Moonlight allows us to see it. And the soldier's voice, whispering in freezing terror, recounts what happened. He got lost. At sunset. In no man's land, between the trenches of men armed to the teeth with machine guns. Wandering in the freezing cold hour after hour, not daring to make a sound. He describes most of all realizing he is walking upon the remains of countless dead, in total darkness, and how he can identify each body part as he walks. Arm. Chest. Head.  What can he do but try and not think about it?

I found myself trying to do the same.  The whole performance actually felt as if somehow I'd been plugged into some kind of virtual reality, one just real enough to become emotionally real. The visceral impact of people actually screaming over recreated artillery bursts reached my bones. So so the smell of the flames. The darkness of the theater--something so natural to me it feels like home--felt heavy, cold, full of careless and unimaginable menace.

Rarely have I felt so moved by a piece of theater, and never before by what was in effect a puppet show. But this company has found a wildly original way to create as profound an experience as a High Mass to the most devout of believers.

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