Messages for the planet as the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival rolls on: Celia Wren reviews "Glacier: A Climate Change Ballet" and the two-person drama "Too Close," while Nelson Pressley listens to a "dust opera" called "Rain Follows the Plow."
"Glacier: A Climate Change Ballet"
At one point in MOVEIUS Contemporary Ballet’s resonant multimedia work “Glacier: A Climate Change Ballet,” a row of dancers advances on a lonely solo figure. Moving beneath a backdrop bathed in flickering video, as plaintive post-minimalist music keens, the lined-up dancers step forward, dipping their torsos down and up in sync. The solo dancer falls back. The picture might represent a wave of sea water beating back a melting fragment of ice.
Undue literalism never mars the dancing in “Glacier,” which recently wrapped up a Capital Fringe run. Rather, Diana Movius’s choreography is just allusive enough to echo and refract the images that surge in our minds as we think about global warming’s effects on icy climes. Often dressed in white or off-white, the performers stand tall, then droop to the floor. They strike long, low crouches, as if embodying collapsed snowdrifts. The women sometimes balance en pointe in poses that exemplify precariousness.
Meanwhile, videography by Robin Bell relays footage of ice-covered landscapes — at first, very clear images, evoking a National Geographic photospread, then more blurred or distorted versions, reminiscent of thermal imaging. Frequently, the shapes of the onstage performers reappear in the video; emblazoned in colors that contrast with the ice tones, the video iterations of the dancers look like ghostly polar spirits.
Originally premiered in 2015 and set to music by Max Richter, David Lang and Andrew Thomas, the 45-minute “Glacier” includes 10 short sections with such names as “Sea Ice,” “Meltwater” and “Polar Bear.” Featuring different combinations of dancers, the sections give the piece some variety while maintaining the same overall achingly elegiac tone. For as long as you watch, at least, awareness of climate change is an emotional experience.
The Capital Fringe run of “Glacier” has ended.
An odd-couple pairing takes a grim turn in “Too Close,” Luigi Laraia’s parable about technology’s effects on the planet. Anthony Keller (Dan Owen) and Dylan Salles (Richard Tanenbaum) are a philosophical and temperamental mismatch: The former is a hyper-rationalist environmental engineer who idealizes science, and the latter is a dweeby history professor who believes in the power of love and the triumph of the human spirit. In another play, the two would trade amusingly barbed quips en route to a reluctant but firm friendship.
But in Laraia’s smart, intense, depressing two-hander, Keller and Salles are strangers who, finding themselves stuck in an elevator in a modern high-rise, distract themselves with talk that amounts to a now-joking, now-entreating, now-brutal war of ideas. Days pass and no rescuers appear. Amidst rationed sips of water and the canny skirting of personal secrets (which eventually emerge), the conversation touches on topics that include Marx, Einstein, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, the joys of mountain climbing, and the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Bursts of levity and panic buffet the characters periodically; despite the isolation of his characters and the stark setting, Laraia has given his scenes a commendable range of moods.
Unfurling with a respectable amount of movement on a bare stage, with floor markings indicating the elevator footprint, director Pablo Andrade’s production benefits from Owen’s poised stage presence and persuasive acting. It’s easy to believe that the impatient suit-clad Keller gets paid big bucks to address such matters as waste disposal and air pollution. Tanenbaum’s performance is stagier, although he certainly looks the part, with his sneakers, backpack, disheveled clothing and generally flustered air.
A tale of confinement performed in a windowless basement room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, “Too Close” is a play that claustrophobes would do well to avoid. Even audience members who like a cozy milieu may find themselves resolving always to travel, in future, with a hatchet.
60 minutes. July 20 and 24 at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library: A:9, 901 G St. NW
“Rain Follows the Plow”
“Dust opera” is the accurate billing for “Rain Follows the Plow,” a historically informative song cycle played by 16 singer-musicians comfortably stretched across the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s wide Sprenger stage. As theater it’s a little awkward, but luckily the dramatizations and loose stabs at characters are kept down to just about nothing.
The old-timey tunes are mostly penned by the show’s creator, Stephen R. Coffee, who sometimes leads with his own vocals and guitar. These ballads and hoedowns bring the prairie and its hardships vividly into view, and let’s just go ahead and call its humor dry. A tune about how beer halls were less common than brothels includes this mournfully sung refrain:
How long since you’ve seen a bosom
How long since you’ve had a bath?
Jokes are as rare in this somber piece, though, as rain was in the 1930s. Just in case the slow strum of guitars and scrape of fiddles doesn’t drive home the misery, big vintage photos are projected behind the musicians. The sight of dugouts – harsh little gouges in the land covered by small roofs – plus scrawny faces and immense clouds of dust make perfectly dreadful complements for Coffee’s songs about scarcity, isolation and FDR’s efforts to keep people hanging on.
As a theatrical performance, “Rain” sort of muddles through with lots of dead space between the tunes, and with a few ungainly characters shuffling through now and then. The musicians sound pretty authentic, though; with a big bass fiddle anchoring the sound they inspire plenty of toe-tapping, and the choral numbers have a particularly haunting feel. Coffee’s intense interest in the subject is infectious, and there’s a message about the importance of balancing development and the environment (and how folks often aren’t very bright about that) that’s impossible to miss.
July 21 and 23 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center: Sprenger, 1333 H St NE.
IF YOU GO:
Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at www.capitalfringe.org, 866-811-4111 and at Fringe venues.