As the dialogue-free production eases into life, stained-glass colors bathe the canopy, which undulates like a jellyfish. An eerie soundscape builds: indecipherable mutterings, a liturgical-sounding chant, a high hum that turns out to be a contribution from the rooster guy (Matthew Glassman), who’s running his finger around the rim of a glass. The aerialist in scarlet (Hayley Brown) keens in a high soprano. The canopy parts to reveal a winged woman (Jeremy Louise Eaton); a figure with a blue pig’s head soon shows up, too.
We have been transported to a phantasmagoric wonderland enriched by the colors, aerial figures, and circus and animal images that were staples for Chagall. (The show’s title is borrowed from a Chagall painting.) Unfortunately, after this breathtakingly mysterious introduction, “Grand Parade” moves into a more referential and obvious mode, with scenes that allude loopily yet methodically to major 20th-century events.
Admittedly, neither the surrealism nor the Ringling Bros.-style tropes disappear. A circus clown running in place becomes a Keystone Kop-like figure — suggesting the birth of the movie industry — and then an officer marching troops into World War I. A cube-shaped trapeze becomes a room in which a man, ruined by the 1929 stock market crash, tries to hang himself; another trapeze becomes a rocket carrying a Sputnik satellite. Two sets of acrobat-friendly bungee cords become a sling supporting the body of an AIDS victim. And so on.
But the production, a mere 60 minutes long, does seem to run out of ideas. Images start to recur, and while some of the repetition registers as artful transformation— the different uses of the trapezes, for instance, or the re-purposing of battlefield stretchers as the sides of a 1920s car — some of it just seems repetitive. Again and again, figures scurry around the stage, or do period dances, or in some cases run on a treadmill, as if to suggest how easy it is to get caught up in the rush of history. Actors hang on bungee cords with exasperating frequency.
Even more problematic is the incorporation of documentary footage — shots of Great Depression bread lines, Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and much, much more — that plays out on a screen at the back of the stage. The footage, and accompanying voice-over, is often familiar — Do we really need to hear Reagan say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” one more time? — and it distracts from the live performances. Moreover, it reinforces the show’s history-syllabus aspect: Characters with brightly colored animal heads may still be wandering around, but “Grand Parade” has become a litany of obligatory references. That’s Prohibition there, where a woman is grabbing a man’s tankard! That housewife-setting-the-table scene represents the 1950s!
On the bright side, the stage picture is always colorful and bustling, what with the aerial and multimedia sequences, and the onstage presence of multiple ensemble members, who dance, mime and — it must be said — mug, dressed in Amanda Miller’s witty costumes. (Lucrecia Briceno contributes the handsome lighting.) Composer Alexander Bakshi’s score particularly complements the show’s more hallucinatory aspects, while honoring Chagall’s Russian Jewish heritage. (There are live musicians. Brian Fairley designed the sound and projections.) The production’s final effect is a nicely subtle auditory one: After the lights go down, we can hear the creaking sound of a gently swinging trapeze.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century)
Conceived, directed and designed by Stacy Klein in collaboration with ensemble members. With Carlos Uriona, Milena Dabova, Adam Bright, Carroll Durand, Kieran Smyth, Diane McNulty and Emily Nikfar. Furniture and wood design, Jeff Bird; vocal and music director, Lyudmila Bakshi; mask design, Beckie Kravetz; puppet design, Carroll Durand; technical design and direction, Adam Bright. One hour. Through Sunday at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.