Times-Picayune: April 22, 2008
DramaRama Delights: Theater festival offered something for every theater-going taste
By David Cuthbert

Attendance was down but spirits were definitely up at DramaRama 15 Saturday night at the Contemporary Arts Center, where 40 theater and dance companies and individuals vied for attention on six stages.  From one-person shows to improvisatory enactments of audience members’ lives to full productions, there was something for everyone . This audience member managed to see eight offerings and was impressed with their variety, commitment and quality.
The hit of the show, hands down, was the ambitious and eventually awesome “Flight,” conceived and designed by sculptor-set designer Jeff Becker, who is a genius at imagining and constructing large, astonishing stage settings.  The subject of “Flight” ranges from the absurdities of current airport discipline, to birds, the Icarus myth, characters evoking Lucky Lindy, Amelia Earhart, Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud” and the centerpiece: a whirligig contraption involving a couch with flapping wings and a nest-cockpit of shoes that — when it gets going — gives the exhilarating illusion of flight.  “Flight” has a run scheduled May 15- June 1 at the North Rampart Community Center and is not to be missed.


Gambit Weekly: May 27, 2008
Connecting Flights
By Dalt Wonk

Performance art rarely has a narrative. It tends to be a free-flowing torrent of related themes. Flight, currently on the boards at the North Rampart Community Center, is a case in point.

As the audience enters the auditorium, people are greeted (actually hectored) by a manic official who humiliates them as though they were airline passengers. The entire set consists of several walk-through metal detectors travelers grudgingly traverse to reach airport concourses after taking off their shoes.

Footwear of every kind gets worked into the set, and suitcases are omnipresent props. The point is clear: the poetry of flight has been lost as air travel has become a form of mass transportation — not to mention a billion dollar business.

One of the trademarks of performance art is the vague theatrical use of props in ways that often seem arbitrary. Some air travelers in Flight hoist a suitcase into the air on ropes and swing it around in a frenzy, like a cult of modern-day druids worshipping a 747. Later, when travelers open their suitcases, they take out an odd amalgam of useless stuff — including feathers, which they then blow at each other. Why? Well, why not? It's shtick you can do with a feather. Or perhaps there is a segue intended, by way of feathers, to earlier versions of flight — by birds and the men who imitated them, particularly Daedalus and Icarus. These abstract gestures — the swirling suitcase and blown feathers — separate the sheep from the lambs in terms of appreciating performance art. You love it or you hate it. On the night I saw the show, the audience loved it. The house was packed on a Sunday and the crowd lapped up every moment, even demanding two curtain calls.

Fortunately, Flight doesn't stay focused on commercial air travel. It moves into wider realms of anti-gravitation. These forays are not necessarily easy to follow, but they are decidedly less mundane.

The first transformation takes us into the world of falconry. Three performers have wings made of wide ties. (Costumes by Susan Gisleson.) A fourth performer is their master. She deploys them to hunt. At one point, she sends them out to bring back three apples. Is this significant or arbitrary? Later, she foretells the future of one of the falcons. He will wake up while she's asleep and fly off to freedom. But he'll be miserable. He needs her. These two have a sadomasochistic thing going on, but it's not without a modicum of tenderness.

From birds, we move to the famous myth of Daedalus and Icarus, the father and son who tried to fly. We don't get narrative so much as phantasmagoria. Daedalus was the ingenious contriver of the Labyrinth that held the Minotaur captive on the island of Crete. Daedalus fell into disfavor with King Minos and was locked up in a tower with his son. There seemed to be no way to escape, so the inventor came up with the plan of making wings out of feathers and wax, then taking flight over the sea to freedom. Icarus, however, became intoxicated with the thrill of soaring through the air. Disregarding his father's warning, he flew higher and higher toward the sun until the wax holding his wings together melted, and he fell into the sea.

The symbolism expressing this myth in Flight is outrageous and fascinating. The boy climbs onto an elevated sofa with flapping wings. Daedalus, his father, flies on a contraption that's part transformed luggage ramp, part deconstructed metal detector. Deconstruction in general figures big in the climactic moments of Flight. One of the falcons, for instance, reenters and perches on top of a metal detector that is metamorphosed into a trapeze.

The performances in Flight cannot be judged by conventional standards, anymore than can the show. The cast of Kathy Randels, Lisa Shattuck, Nick Slie, Ashley Sparks and Bruce France throw themselves with zest into their demanding roles.

A tip of the hat goes to Jeff Becker, who conceived and designed the show; J Hammons, who co-directed; Lisa D'Amour and Lisa Shattuck, who wrote the script; and Kathy Randels and Sean LaRocca, who wrote the music. Courtney Egans created the effective, glistening projections that suggest birds, planes, montgolfiers, bombs and falling apples. Those apples again. Are they a nod to Newton and gravity?


Times-Picayune: Friday, May 30, 2008
NIGHT OF FANCY - ' Flight ' entertains on its open-ended journey
By Doug MacCash

Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be an arty ride.

There are three things you need to know to enjoy " Flight ," the ambitious art performance in the French Quarter.

1. Icarus, a hero of Greek mythology, flew too close to the sun on wings held together by wax, and thus lost his life.

2. The airlines will make you take off your shoes and are liable to lose your luggage.

3. Performance art can be pleasurable, even if the plot loses you.

Think of " Flight " as an intricate piece of live-action sculpture. Jeff Becker's marvelous mechanical props (the security gate-turned-trapeze is a personal favorite), Courtney Egan's ghostly video projections of X-rayed suitcases (love the live fish), Susan Gisleson's fabulous costumes (the feathers made of neck ties are perfect), and the ethereal score by Sean LaRocca and Kathy Randels blend into a sumptuously surreal environment that allows the quintet of energetic actors to flourish.

Nick Slie soars as the acrobatically conflicted falcon. Randels is the ideal domineering mother bird. Lisa Shattuck lends adolescent insecurity to Icarus, while Ashley Sparks is comically compelling as Icarus' disastrously confident inner voice. And Bruce France brings the proper authoritative bewilderment to the role of airport security chief.

The thin-as-mist theme probably has something to do with hubris, and something to do with loss of freedom. It's hard to say precisely. If you are the sort of art lover who becomes impatient with open-endedness, this is a " Flight " you might want to miss.

If, on the other hand, you've got a taste for allegorical abstraction, the action-packed hourlong amusement won't let you down.


ANTIGRAVITY MAGAZINE: (Vol. 5  No. 7):  May 2008
Interview by Dan Fox

The things that take us off the ground are given about as much thought as glorified appliances these days. We jam our asses into the seats and close our eyes, wanting only to arrive in one piece. Airports feel about as religious as Greyhound stations and we all sing the blues about baggage restrictions and the TSA. What used to be considered a miracle, a feather in our collective cap—human-engineered flight—has been forgotten. The adventure is over, the space race complete; now we just try and avoid falling sky garbage. And tucked away somewhere under a sleek metal shell, the mechanics of our own design hum along with the smug satisfaction that come with decades of improvement and innovation as we tune it all out right along with the in-flight safety procedures.

The sculptures-come-alive performance piece Flight (co-produced by ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro) aims to rip away that shell and expose and explore every greasy cog and gear taking us somewhere far away. Conceived by artist Jeff Becker, Flight is a return to the early days of the space age, when we stood cowering under the shadow of these gravity-defying devices like so many monkeys under a black obelisk. Equal parts fear, fascination, imagination and reverence, Flight promises to be as intricate and commanding as a jet engine with a host of performers, musicians, writers and video artists contributing to the work. ANTIGRAVITY spoke with Becker, as well as co-director J Hammons and performer Nick Slie, about the piece, as well as a little theater history and the empathy of airplane mechanics. We’ll be cruising at about 1,600 words; feel free to leave your seat.

ANTIGRAVITY: What’s the genesis of Flight? How did it come about?

Jeff Becker: I’ve had this lifelong interest in flight and flying, like a lot of people. I grew up in Washington, D.C. where the Air & Space Museum is; we went on a lot of field trips there. They had this film called To Fly!... My first flight was probably when I was twelve or thirteen, so I had never really experienced it except for that film. As I got older and started making performance work, I still had this fascination. After Katrina, I started to think about flight as it related to “taking flight” or “fleeing” and the dualities of flight as a means of rescue and safety and a means of delivering destruction.

AG: Do you feel like there’s much fertile ground left in the Katrina experience, as it relates to art?

JB: I don’t want it to be a piece about Katrina, and I don’t think it is. However, you are the sum of your experiences and that was a huge, profound experience for all of us that are collaborating on this piece—in many different ways—so it’s going to filter into it... I think there will always be fertile ground, it’s just a matter of finding it.

J Hammons: It’s a hard parallel to draw, but we haven’t had our Angels in America yet. And it’s got to be out there. Unfortunately, there were many, many, many bad theatric pieces about AIDS until Angels in America came. But to reiterate, it’s not a Katrina piece; it just happened to be the catalyst to get it rolling.

AG: Usually it seems like a performance is based on characters, with the set developing around them. In the case of Flight, however, it’s the opposite: you had the idea for the set pieces and the performance unfolded from that. How do you create an emotional core with that approach?

JB: For one thing, I try hard not to use the word “set,” because that implies exactly what you’re talking about.

JH: It does have a name—theater.

Nick Slie: His name is Frederico.

JB: I name my set pieces and I introduce them as characters; and I like them to be treated as characters and worked with in that way, and not just something you impose yourself on. They’re usually machines [with] some kinetic part that requires a collaboration between the performer that I made and the perfor mer that’s come to the show. I also think of them as environments or worlds (I started as an installation artist). I almost never do my work on a stage; there’s never any curtain that separates it. Sometimes you’re seated, sometimes you’re moving around. I want the characters and the audience to inhabit the same world. I try to make it so it’s not stiff and make the environment provoke very strong emotions more than any other theater you might see.

AG: Do you ever feel that by working in theater you’re an endangered species? America is such a movie culture and we’re all kind of ADD at this point. Is your approach a reaction to that?

JH: Picking up on what Jeff is saying, in terms of emotion: there was a pretty strong break that happened around the 1930s and 1940s where theater, which had been pretty unified, divided into two camps: one emotion-based, one action-based. And the emotion-based lent itself very well to film and television, so that style became pervasive on TV and film. And then theater seemed to get this complex about itself and imitated the thing that it created, so it reduced itself to emotions and small psychological dramas. Whereas the other aspect, which has been going on since the dawn of time, is action-based. The thing that’s critical about Jeff’s pieces—he’s right to not call them sets because that implies they’re very static. But they move; Frederico moves a hell of a lot: there’s flapping wings, it spins, it tilts... So it’s not necessarily a reaction to things as much as trying to get back to the fundamentals of what theater should be: live performance, action and interaction with the audience and not... where the audience is programmed like they’re watching TV. You can’t do that with these pieces.

AG: What’s the difference between Flight and something like Cirque du Soleil?

JB: Budget! No, I love Cirque du Soleil and I’ve seen a lot of their shows, but I think it’s very different. They’re circus-based and spectacle-based... As artists you tend to make the kind of work you like to see. I don’t watch television and the movies I tend to like are theatrical-based. No Country for Old Men I enjoyed a lot because it was just about the relationship between the people. I see movies with lots of special effects that don’t dazzle me as much as a great theater piece. I would say that we are based in theater and more of an intimate type of setting than Cirque Du Soleil.

JH: I was in a dance company that’s similar to those that are spectacle-based, and the difference is those spectacle- based things are like an awesome one night stand. “Oh my god that was great,” but then you’re on to the next thing where it really feels more intimate and part of a relationship. And even if it does last one evening it has the arc of a relationship instead of just the spectacle, orgasmic aspect of it—not that there’s anything wrong with that!

AG: You don’t go to great lengths to hide the wires or rigging behind your contraptions. What’s the thought behind that?

JB: I’m fascinated with the mechanics of things. When I’m on an airplane I like sitting over the wing; I like watching the flaps move, the hydraulic cylinders that move them, that kind of thing. When I see that, I kind of understand what’s happening a little bit. In performances—it’s not a magic show. I don’t want people to be caught up in how something’s working, because it’s more magical for me and I think for the audience when they see how something works right away. In Flight, they have ropes on the wings and I purposefully made them white so you really see them. I could’ve made them black, but I want them to really see what was happening. When you get away from being concerned about how something happens, that’s when the real magic happens.

AG: Van Halen’s famous “brown M&Ms” rider clause was really a way for them to gauge how safe the rigging for their show was going to be. What are the brown M&M’s for Flight?

JB: I have a really good answer for that. One of our performers was on the flying couch and I was underneath with wrenches and stuff and she’s like “What’s wrong? What are you doing?” She was really nervous. I said, “Look, you fly on airplanes all the time. There are people working the mechanics around you, fixing things. They don’t know you and they don’t care about you and you trust them. I care about you and I love you and nothing’s going to happen to you.” I’m really, really conscious about that. I used to perform, and I was less conscious when it was me, but when it’s somebody else I’m really looking at everything, inspecting everything. Anything that’s in my control I will make sure it’s safe.

AG: It says on your advertisement that you’re offering a discount ticket price for artists. How does one go about proving themselves at the door?

JH: Bring your CV.

JB: Yeah, we have paper and pencil; you can draw us a picture.

NS: We take you by your word. I don’t know anyone in New Orleans who has their artist card. Maybe we should make some of those.