NEW YORK — We’ve had quartets for helicopters, operas on the freeway, performance art based on various forms of self-immolation. So a festival of cutting-edge work today would be hard-pressed to come up with something that hadn’t been done.
Nonetheless, the Prototype festival has persisted in showcasing a slew of unusual new offerings every year, bringing to New York and sending back out into the world a wide range of musical theater pieces that have a few things in common. Most of them could be called opera, but most of them have little to do with what you might see in an opera house. Opera houses are looking for ways to connect with new audiences; the Prototype festival shows just how far they need to change the template to really try to do it.
Not that the Prototype festival is exactly remaking the genre either. What it is doing is offering a concentration of energy and creativity, throwing a lot of work against the wall and seeing what sticks. Offerings at this year’s festival, which continues through Sunday, include a piece blending cello music and memoir (“This Tree,” by Leah Coloff); an exploration of memory after trauma (“Prism,” by Ellen Reid); and an interactive rock-opera-musical-film that braids several stories around the main thread of a young woman who becomes a rock star and loses and finds herself along the way (“The Infinite Hotel,” by Michael Joseph McQuilken).
The festival’s opening day, on Saturday, introduced a couple of significant pieces that were developed elsewhere, including one that did come from an opera house: “4:48 Psychosis,” a musical interpretation of Sarah Kane’s searing final stage piece about mental illness and suicide, drawn from her own experiences and written shortly before her death at age 28. Kane’s play is so amorphous — it doesn’t even specify the number of actors — that every staging is, in effect, an interpretation, which means that adding music becomes less a transformation than simply one of many viable options. Philip Venables’s score, which opened under the auspices of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2016, bore more than a whiff of New Opera (would it really engage an audience not already open to the genre?), but it was also effectively expressive, veering from long, quiet chords to roars of tense anger without cliche.
Ted Huffman’s production, enclosed in a boxy white waiting room with a few doors, a few chairs and a speaker that blares Muzak, involves six identically dressed women, one of them, the luminous protagonist, Gwen (sung by Gweneth-Ann Rand). Numbed and anguished as she moves dully around the stage, sometimes restrained by the other women, she sings in a silvery soprano when her lines aren’t being delivered by a furious drum played by Clara Warnaar, while the words are projected across the back wall. A therapist opposite her answers in clipped tones, voiced now by a bell, now by the rasping of a saw played by Amy Garapic, another part of a 14-member ensemble above the stage. There isn’t a plot, but there certainly is a story, as Rand enacts the patient’s frustration, the deadening and ineffective regimen of medication, the hope and fear and longing. The opera’s weakness was its protracted ending, though that read partly as horror of the grim inevitability of what was to come, the historical fact of the suicide that ended this creative life.
More potentially innovative, yet less groundbreaking, was the ambitious “Infinite Hotel,” which unwinds as a film in real time (a video version of each performance is posted online) while melding the lives of a concert pianist, a rock star, a disturbed mother, a daughter in a coma after being hit by a car and other unlikely characters. Entering, audience members are handed headphones, whose green lights became a feature of the darkness at the edges of the performance space, like alien eyes.
But for all its potential and adroit use, the technology seemed something of a red herring in what proved to be a fairly routine story about a woman’s rise to pop stardom, her fall and her redemption. There are only seven plots in the world, we’re told, and this piece proved a reminder that theater can hardly do more than tell human stories, whatever the trappings that surround it. More could have happened: The concert-pianist character, for example (played by Daniel Reece), could have started to develop a music performance that would take its place alongside the songs of the rock star, Jib (Leah Siegel). But it was Siegel’s songs, in her impressively wide-ranging voice, that dominated. They were often almost as good as the play asked us to believe they were, while a younger-than-usual audience held hands and danced along. It almost looked like the real thing.
The Prototype festival continues through Sunday at various venues in New York City. prototypefestival.org.