Sunday, July 15, 2007


Unfortunately for me, I did not see the last two Crucible theatrical opera/ballet productions, so I am unable to assess how the production I witnessed this past Saturday night at the close of the Crucible's Fire Arts Festival stands in relation to those earlier works. But taken on its own, I would have to say that what I saw was - well, to put it in a flaming nutshell, "spectacular!” Now let me counts the ways.

The story - a retelling of Homer's Odyssey, was couched as something of an eco-critique of man's hubris in failing to show sufficient respect either to the gods or to their many earthly gifts. A lesson must be taught, and so Odysseus, this "god among men, but fool among gods” must be made to endure those legendary travails as handed down to us by the ancient bard, Homer.

The show was performed upon this Leatherman Super Tool of a set - a monument of ingenuity really; industrial, multi-functional and attractive too - in that Nine Inch Nails way that sulfurous welders seem to prefer. Propane pipes were attached at an insane number of points along the structure and expertly rigged to flame or blast at critical moments. The whole front of the stage housed a four-foot deep moat of water into which and out of which performers entered and exited.

But as attractive as it might have been, the set was - as Homer might have phrased it, "Stage the Lesser." Surrounding and framing that set was "Stage the Greater." There on an embankment behind the three-story tall set stood two 40" tall scrap metal sculptures. Downstage to both left and right sides were two more nearly equal in scale crouching figures; all four the work of Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito. These pieces were looking more substantial and inspiring in this context, then I ever saw them look before. The sculptures each represented one of four ancient Greek gods who played major roles in Homer's tale (Zeus, Athena, Aeolus, and Poseidon). Fixed to each sculpture was a performer (Vegas and Karen Fox, in the case of Zeus and Athena) who embodied and spoke the words of that god, and in the case of Aeolus and Poseidon (Xeno's Austin and Cooper) also played live music. The score itself, composed by Mark Growden and played live by his band (+ groovy Robin Coomer) was just great, up front and driving when it needed to be and restrained but supportive when the focus was elsewhere. Kudos also to the sound amplification, which was consistently clear and balanced.

Perhaps the singular most impressive element in the show was the use of a massive crane that flew in key stage elements: the Trojan Horse, Odysseus' boat and Hermes, the aerial messenger who spun and danced with his purple tissue. Having been to many a playa burn, I know the impact that action and props built at that scale can have, and that was evident in the fabulous assortment of both subtle and monumental fire installations roaring all around us. But this wasn't happening on the playa. It was rather happening in a parking lot in Oakland, with the BART running behind us.

This cognitive shift of playa-like spectacle to an urban setting unleashed a whole set of unexpected circus-like "thrills" for the senses. Aeolus, god of the winds, poured vast clouds of fog into the audience from three giant fans. Poseidon, god of the sea, unleashed members of the Oakland Fire Department who blasted hoses at the moat stirring up turbulent seas. Zeus zapped lightning bolts and volts of electricity, while a hot gas flame jetted 100 feet into the air from Aphrodite's raised hand.

The main cast (big ballet dude Easton Smith, The Fabo Flavor Group!, golden-voiced Aimee Puentes) and supporting players, dancers and performers - too numerous to mention, gave it there all and shone in their time. Special credit must go to the numerous unseen builders and craftspeople who designed and gave intelligence to this monstrous creation, thus enabling the gifted backstage crew to perform so seamlessly, a steady stream of technical miracles. During the two hour show, I sat up in the bleachers next to a 14-year-old boy who was as engrossed in it all as I was. This was not theater - this was circus and damn good circus too, and thus ambrosia for children of all ages

Allow me to make a critical distinction here. The key to the success of this production rested not so much in its focused artfulness or in its devotion to perfection in any one discipline, so much as in its skin of the teeth daring, its thoroughly ambitious scale and its integration of wildly disparate elements. Employing talented groups and individuals like the Lahidy African Dancers (Lotus Eaters), Jonathan Youtt's Cyclops puppet, the Nekyia Bellydance & Xeno (Sirens), Serchmaa Byamba, a great Mongolian contortionist (Circe), Haley Henderson, a willowy ballerina (Calypso) and Realis, a first-rate gymnast/dance duo - to anchor each stop along the journey, were above all engrossing circus entertainments before they were servants of the narrative. But to my vaudevillian eyes, this is exactly the way it should be. These performers were of the highest quality, as was the spell they cast over the audience.

As I see it, who cares about another insightful new re-interpretation of a classic script, when what we are offered instead is a forceful next-level entertainment for whom both Homer and Hip-Hop are of equal importance. Such levelings of traditional hierarchies help signal the arrival of what I call bottom-up "emergent spectacles" - increasingly epic-scaled ritual/spectacles that draw their inspiration and their sustenance from and through an evolving collaborative networked community of artists. This I believe is what art of the moment should do, if it possibly can. I for one couldn't be happier with this shift in priorities, and so felt filled with pride for our local art/circus community and what they are capable of doing when called upon to do so. This ladies and gentlemen, is what circus is all about.

Having produced a lot of shows in my day, I know full well how much time, labor and resources went into pulling off a show of this size and scope. It was an enterprise requiring gargantuan effort, and from the audience's perspective, it came off without a hitch. Believe me, that is no mean feat. It added a pneumatic blast of inspiration to my own long-held belief that this is among the more fantastic of gifts that the Bay Area has to contribute to the larger world's artistic and cultural destiny. The Crucible (founded in 1999), like Burning Man, has been around for a while now, and has spawned a small army of artists and craftspeople trained in their eclectic lineup of industrial arts. As a source point of an extended network, they play a central role in the making of our local art machine of the future. Sophisticated and powerful enough to satisfy any nit-picking critic, their ethos is above all truly collaborative. Surely it requires the will and determination of a handful of dedicated maniacs, and in Michael Sturtz and the Crucible Team, that base seems covered. But the end result - and what was so evidently alive on that stage Saturday night, was the collaborative spirit of an art and circus community engaged in some powerful and magical collective action.

The photos here from Flickr were blatantly stolen (with consent) from (in order of their appearance) PBO31, Jillian Photographer, PBO31, SharleneS and Marcos Sanchez.