Entertainment » Theatre

Two Nights of High Flight :: Jason Slavick on the Multi-Media Theatrical Experience ’Icarus’

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday May 16, 2013

With "Icarus," Liars and Believers Artistic Director Jason Slavick found a way to merge classical Greek mythology with the American mythos of the carnival.

Liars & Believers is the Boston-based troupe that brought area audiences the "Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Steampunk Musical" that was last year's "28 Seeds," as well as 2011's "Song of Songs," among other productions.

The new show is also a musical, among other things, showcasing the work of composer and lyricist Nathan Leigh. "Icarus," which is set for a two-night run at the Cambridge YMCA on May 17 and 18, takes place during the Great Depression, and is set among the denizens of a traveling show called Minnie Minoseczeck's Menagerie of Marvels. This is roots-deep Americana that embraces Dustbowl grit and sideshow magic. There's also an element of star-crossed love; as the Liars & Believers press release summarizes the show, "Minnie's Menagerie, a peculiar Depression-era sideshow, is raking it in with the help of Daedalus's whimsical technology. But when Daedalus's son falls in love with Minnie's daughter, the star attraction, their passion and plans to escape threaten to bring it all crashing down."

That's a charged turn of phrase: Recall that the original Greek myth centered around the wax wings that Daedalus fashioned to allow a human being to fly. But when his high-spirited son, Icarus, climbed too close to the sun, the wings melted and the lad plunged to his doom.

"When Nathan and I first started discussing 'Icarus,' we were really talking about its epic quality, the scale of the myth," Slavick told EDGE. "That naturally leads you toward choices that can express that scale. I can't tell you how we got to the idea of the carnival, but it just felt right immediately."

The notion of the old-time carnival is etched in our national psyche as a migrating oasis of vaguely outlaw entertainments. There’s something about the vision of the carnival as a gypsy-like, self-contained cosmos of liberty pursued, and liberties taken, that smacks of snake-oil remedies for souls weary of the constraints of proper society.

Slavick went right for the heart of the matter in his new production. "To me, it feels like a mix of that vast, down-trodden, barren world and a garish, debauched world that’s a response -- a way out of that suffering and deprivation," he said of the play, which isn’t so much proscenium-bound as it is set to break bonds and storm across boundaries.

As such, this theatrical event boasts not just stage performance in the usual sense, but also puppetry, live music, and burlesque.

"Generally, I’m interested in exploring theatrical forms," Slavick said. "Over these past four years, Liars and Believers has been playing around with this; we’ve done punk cabaret, steam punk, indie rock and dance theatre, mask and puppet theater. All of these things are an effort to find a highly theatrical, exciting way to tell a story.

"I have nothing against literary, text-based theater," Slavick continued. "I grew up on it and spent the first part of my career doing it." That said, "I feel there are lots and lots of people doing a really great job with that, so I’m taking an opportunity to play with al different other kinds of things.

"And the other part of this is that I love collaborating," Slavick added. "I love other people’s work. I’m excited by all different kinds of things. To me the opportunity is to bring together all different kinds of artists and see how they influence one another, and see how delving into a whole different kind of performance form pushes you into a new place.

"As an artist, I grow when I try out new things - when I bring in new people who are really good at what they do and it’s something I don’t know how to do. I also think it’s fun for audiences; there’s a great sense of wonder when you dig into puppetry and mask, or really ride music as the engine of musical theater. That sparks some thing deep and non-rational when I’m an audience member."

Something Dionysian?

"Right, yes, exactly!" Slavick enthused. "It’s marrying the higher-level rational experience that really is text-based, where we think and reason, with the pounding of the drum, or the lilting flute, or the bold non-realistic imagery of the mask, or the flash of fabric... The dance’s movement through space isn’t about understanding something and then rationally interpreting it. Those things kick something deep in your psyche and make you go, ’Oh!’ I want audiences to have both of those experiences."

With so much happening, how could they not? The production features a different live band playing their own original material each on each of the play’s two nights. There will also be a band playing the score for "Icarus."

"There’s a live band woven throughout the show," Slavick said of the musical component, going on to detail the other elements that will be present in the multi-media experience. "We have our band, which is part of the show, and then we’ve invited guests, other bands and other burlesque performers, plus there’s an art show... plus, we’re bringing in street performer-type performers to move through the space and create a carnival experience, so when you come to see the show it’s a full evening of entertainment and sound and light."

Another aspect of the show is extensive use of puppetry, which Slavick characterized as "really broad. We use a wide variety of puppets. The most sort of literal puppet is a little, very detailed, figure operated by one actor. I call him ’Mini-Daedalus.’ He kind of the stand-in for Daedalus.

"And then we have a couple of muppet-like puppets," Slavick added. "We have puppets made of junk that roughly point toward humanistic form, and the way we treat them gives them life and they become lively, humanized characters. And then there’s full-on object manipulation, where we take an object but, by the actor’s manipulation of it, it takes on a life of its own and becomes a lively creature."

The show promises breakneck velocity suitable to its classical references. "Throughout the piece we are flowing quickly from thing to thing, from an actor standing / speaking / singing, right to another actor puppeteering an object or a puppet, to another actor who is both himself and a puppet," Slavick noted.

The use of puppets, and of multimedia presentation, is something we’ve seen more of in the Boston theater scene in recent years. Earlier this year the A.R.T.’s "Marie Antoinette" boasted a talking sheep; a handful of puppets portrayed Ernest Shackleton’s doomed polar expedition in Phantom Limb’s "69 ?S. (The Shackleton Project)," brought to Boston audiences last season by ArtsEmerson as part of its "World on Stage" series; the titular character in "The Death of Tintagiles," presented by imaginary beasts, was a puppet; and then there was the Lyric Stage Company’s production of "Avenue Q," which took top honors at the recent Elliot Norton Awards.

Then there was Taylor Mac’s mega-media play "The Lily’s Revenge," which arrived at the A.R.T.’s Club Oberon space last fall.

Slavick addressed this, telling EDGE, "I have been saying, and I think it’s really true, that we are witnessing a revolution in Boston theater, from the largest scale being the A.R.T. and Arts Emerson, who are creating and breaking in large-scale, experimental, multi-media theater that really stretched beyond realistic, text-based theater, down to companies like Liars and Believers, which is a home-grown company made up of local artists doing experimental work. We’re bringing music and dance and puppets and masks to the stage, and just sliding across genres to tell stories. I’ve been around since ’99, and when I look around at the current landscape, it looks totally different from when I got here. It looks totally different from five years ago!"

A propos to the multi-media nature of the shows Liars & Believers produces, Slavick favors a collaborative approach to writing and developing new theatrical works.

"In general, the way our process works is I will start with an idea; then I start pulling together collaborators," Slavick explained. "I called Nathan Leigh, the composer, with whom I did ’Song of Songs’ two years ago, and I said, ’You want to do a show together again?’ He said, ’Great,’ and so I said, ’What about Icarus?’ For a while, we batted around some ideas. The way we found out way to the Great Depression was, I was really concerned about our economy; this was about a year ago, and our economy hadn’t ticked upward yet. That was really on my mind. From there we got into the carnival idea, and then narrowed it down to sideshow, and I sketched it down to a short story. That was the basis from which we started.

"I brought in a puppeteer," Slavick continued, "I had run into Faye Dupras, and I just fell in love with her; she’s so smart and a phenomenal collaborator, super-talented. I said, ’Want to do a play with us?’ We brought her in, and then we tasked the actors. Part of it was arbitrary: ’Okay, we’re going to have five actors.’ We though about what kind of actors we wanted, what kinds of skills we wanted. But there was no script, there were no roles. Then I had my design team brought it, and we began collaborating.

"The first thing we did was everyone read the short story a few times, and we talked about it, picked it apart, and started breaking it down into the plot points. From there we started improvising: ’This event is a scene, and it’s going to include these two characters.’ We would try a dozen different kinds of improvisation on a scene. Faye would come into rehearsal with piles of stuff -- Styrofoam, and sticks, and pieces of paper, and a hot glue gun. All throughout, we were recording it -- videotaping it, or audiotaping it, and making notes.

"That was one three-week period," Slavick recollected, "and [at the end] it was just a big pile of [ideas]. I went home and put it all together, and shaped it into a script. The script is really based on what they improvised; they created their own characters and a lot of their own text. Nathan set about writing songs, and so we could say we wanted this song here, and that song there, and we worked up a first draft.

"We went through another workshop period where we were reshaping the working draft, and we were constantly cutting and rewriting, and the got us to a presentable draft, which we presented to an audience. Then we took their feedback: What resonated with them? Where are they lost? What did they want more of? What confused them? We went back and did a lot more re-writing and re-shaping and cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and that brought us to the current-ish draft. By that point already it’s much closer to a regular show.

"Now we’re at the point where we’re trimming a word here, or, this morning, I added three half-lines just to make the scene clearer," Slavick added. "Last night we restaged some things in minor ways because now we understand the characters so much netter. It all evolves organically out of the work of the actors themselves."

If all of that sounds like a huge amount of work for a play that’s only going to run for two nights, well, it is. But that makes it all the more exciting for a play that’s set up like a traveling show: "You come in, you’re there for just a couple of days, and you’re gone again," Slavick said. "We’ve really embraced the traveling show format."

So much so, in fact, that plans are already in place for "Icarus" to head to New York in the summer and then do a tour, "either next season, or the season after that," Slavick said.

"Really, it’s built to be a traveling show," Slavick summarized. "The entire show fits inside a box. It’s meant to be able to roll into any venue, open up, play, do the whole thing, strike, and get out of town."

Hear that, Boston? Slavick says it again: "This is it! Two nights! Come and see it!"

Liars and Believers present the world premier of "Icarus" -- Two nights only! Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18 @ 7:30 p.m. at Cambridge YMCA, 820 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. 02139

Tickets cost $17/$20/$30. For more information, please visit http://www.liarsandbelievers.com/icarus

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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