Right now the stage at On the Boards looks like a landfill. A miniature train track snakes around glass plates, bones, crystal balls, angular sculptures, and piles of crepe paper fringe. Bullhorn speakers line the floor and ceiling. It's a mess.
When it's showtime, the lights go out.
Then stuff starts to move.
It turns out all the junk on the ground is a complex, room-sized instrument composed of a networked system of 10 computers that communicate with each other and with robots on the stage. The piece was created by Norwegian art collective Verdensteatret, a group that's been going strong for 30 years.
The artists developed their own software in order to link all of the stage elements together. Six "trains" roll around the tracks, projecting LED light through a lens. The light filters through colored plates, glass, wire, and throws up otherworldly shadows on screens in the background. Sculptures, which also serve as canvases for light, scoot along the tracks. Three projectors beam images onto screens, too.
Everything is connected, but nothing is automated. The collective "plays" this instrument in real time, using the computers and their own hands. In one section, for instance, an actor blows the hell out of a tuba. A program picks up the sound and translates it into a vibrating image of a sphere, which is then projected onto screens. The show is LOUD-quiet-LOUD, dark, and eerie.
Piotr Pachel, one of the members of the collective, told me that responses to the piece have been interesting. When they installed the instrument in China, some viewers thought the piece engaged with the Chinese tradition of shadow puppets. When they installed the piece in Moscow, some viewers saw references to Russian Futurist ideas about the role of bodies onstage. The U.S. viewer might pick up some Mad Max: Fury Road vibes (sans pyro, add breathers), or they might see the words "abstract" and "steampunk" floating around in their minds but refuse to put them together in a sentence due to their general antipathy for all things steampunk.
The experience of watching the show is somehow both meditative and apocalyptic. I've only had that feeling one other time in my life. I was standing on the beach at American Camp. It was a pitch black night, and I could hear the terrible sound of the ocean rushing the shore, but I couldn't really see it. I was both terrified and blown away by the beauty of the void. But maybe I just need to listen to more Norwegian Black Metal?
The intellectual beauty/terror of the piece lies in the interaction between the artists and their instrument. The actors onstage are both cogs in the instrument's machine and gods controlling the universe. That incredibly polarized, existential instability reflects the relationship between a city and its citizen. How much control do we have of this city we've set up for ourselves? In Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog asks, "Does the internet dream of itself?" Bridge Over Mud seems to be asking, "Does a metropolis dream of itself?" From what I can tell, the answer is yes. And it has a lot of nightmares.
This show premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music a few weeks ago, and it's last stop in the States is right here in Seattle. We're lucky to have it.