Performance

Turning a Classic Soviet Sci-Fi Flick into a Live Performance

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Snaut (David Skeist) and Kris Kelvin (Patrick Ball) in Dangerous Ground Productions’ ‘S.’ (all photos courtesy Mario Zanaria)

Layered with live performances, multimedia feeds, and casts in which everyone is an actor (including the cameramen and musicians), Doris Mirescu’s plays channel the model of the fun house — “live films,” as she identifies her work, that are avowedly crafty and multiple, laden with an atmosphere of vulnerability. Certainly not dead, like ordinary film — “edited, already finished at the moment it is shown,” as Mirescu has said of cinema. But like film expanded: enlivened through the immediacy of theater.

What remains a constant is that Mirescu’s roadmap is film. Previously she and her Dangerous Ground Productions company have adapted the movies of Jacques Rivette, John Cassavetes’s Husbands, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris for live performance. Now, staged over a series of floors and rooms in a temporarily unoccupied Manhattan townhouse, Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris is the subject of Mirescu’s reanimating, confounding attention.

She certainly does not take it easy on herself, her crew, or her audience. There are any number of challenging films she could adapt, but Tarkovsky’s philosophical meditation on space, memory, and cosmic mirrors poses a number problems — of plot, special effects, acting, and length (nearly three hours), to name a few. Problems the play manages to resourcefully and intelligently hurdle, for the most part. That it’s pulled off at all is a minor success; that it is also convincing and compelling is success of another level.

Mirescu is not the first to risk an adaptation and failure of Solaris. Steven Soderbergh’s version, while it has its admirers, has been justly cast as the lesser film. But it makes a wise, incisive cameo in Mirescu’s play, supplying video for a scene in which the characters view a recording of a pilot’s unusual experience on the planet Solaris. The decision is pragmatic — had the scene come from Tarkovsky’s original, the dialogue would have been in Russian. But Mirescu’s use of it extends beyond convenience to a meta hat tip and reference, adding another layer to her interpretation of the original film, its influence, and its points of approach.

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Dangerous Grounds Productions’ ‘S.’ (click to enlarge)

In this way, Mirescu shares a kinship with the Wooster Group, whose deconstructions of plays and films rattle the works themselves as much as the culture and history that carry and inform them. The Wooster Group is also deeply wedded to multimedia-augmented productions. The closer cousin, however, is the Elevator Repair Service’s wondrous production of The Great Gatsby, GatzGatz was a word-for-word reading–cum–dramatic incantation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. In Gatz, The Great Gatsby was not so much read as conjured by the actors, who were possessed by the roles of the book they embodied.

Mirescu’s S. similarly conjures Solaris scene for scene, following a path that springs from the film but is not bound to Tarkovsky’s (or Soderbergh’s) vision. The plot of the play mirrors that of the film: Kris Kelvin (Patrick Ball) is enlisted to leave Earth and evaluate the status of a space shuttle orbiting the planet Solaris. Many on Earth are eager to shut the program down, and Kelvin is essentially meant to rubber-stamp the process. But he when reaches the station and its sentient planet-subject, he finds it difficult to attend to his mission, his past dredged up in ways he couldn’t have imagined, with shame, love, the other appearing before him; Solaris, it seems, is capable of manifesting our dreams, desires, and memories.

One way to think about the production is to imagine Mirescu projecting her filmed play with the side door of the projector open, revealing not a reel or a storage drive, but the cast and crew and creators performing the play from within the machine itself, the ghost and source of this art. For all its layering, there is a sneaky permeability in S. between technology, art, performers, and audience. At the same time, there’s a tension between inside and out, intimacy and separation.

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The audience room in ‘S.’

This tension extends to the audience. Confined to a small living room, relaxing on plastic folding chairs, the audience sees three projections: two of the ongoing main action (with two cameras providing different perspectives) and another of a supplemental four-scene panel that displays surveillance video from rooms in the space station orbiting Solaris (it looks like a DIY control room). Kristin Arnesen plays a keyboard off to the side of the audience space and occasionally slips away to act, splitting time as performer and composer. The acting in S. veers from the cheeky to the committed, reflecting different ways of approaching the act of re-creation. The two cameramen filming the production are frequently in the frame as much as the actual characters. Meanwhile, the smell of fake cigarettes drifts in. But only through the video feed can you see what’s happening in the next room or floor. Mirescu’s work is rich with both expansions and barriers.

Yet as S. drags on for nearly three hours, with no intermissions — a blessing and a curse: an affirmation of the theatrical moment, an aping of film, a daring commitment by the performers, and a long time to sit — the layers fail to further enhance one another. “Revelation occurs in the fragmentation of the original,” Mirescu said in an interview with the L Magazine at the time of her Rivette series, “when it is pushed to the breaking point and the varnish disappears.” The varnish seems to disappear halfway through S., but, lacking more of a point to break, the piece loses it thrust, feeling strained, especially as the hours mount. Tarkovsky could reload with a spectacle or a powerful scene. Gatz was constantly revivified, feeding back between book and life, life and book, binding each into a spell. But S. can fragment Solaris only so many times before it starts to feel like it’s repeating itself.

Still, it is a sort of marvel to watch S./Solaris performed lived. Film has a host of revered long takes, along with a few one-shot films, but none match Mirescu’s mixture of intellect, intimacy, and real risk taking. Its ingenuity may taper off by the end, but sometimes compelling projects end up smaller than they start.

There will be two more encore performances of S. on May 13 and May 16 at 8pm. The location (in Manhattan) is disclosed upon reservation of tickets.

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