NoDef's Philip Yiannopoulous heads to the final frontier of St. Claude to review Nocturnes (I-III), a three-part exploration of space.
One great thing about doing a show in a previously unused venue is that the company gets to name it. The aptly-titled Cosmodrome, once a Party City warehouse on St. Claude, houses Skin Horse's original Nocturnes (I-III), a piece distinctly broken into three parts that focuses on outer space, its power, and its beauty.
First of all, let's get our vocabulary straight. A nocturne is a piece of art related to or inspired by night (and therein the stars).
The production begins and ends with the same nameless character, giving the audience a very loose narrative framework. Mostly, the comical Prelude serves to put everyone on the same page with a very relatable experience: just missing the last connecting train and having to wait for what seems like an eternity through the night.
Before the first Nocturne, Mission Control, a member from Skin Horse (Evan Spigelman) grabs a microphone, turns to the audience to explain just what is about to be performed: scraps of text from history, specifically the Russian space program's launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first successful cosmonaut. The break of the fourth wall to share his favorite words on the power of space travel, (ranging from Socrates to Billy Joel) alongside his occasional vocal flubs void any pretense. He even goes so far as to tell his audience that there was no Russian translator other than Google, and as such "everything is a bit wrong." Actors introduce themselves and some voices they'll be reading.
With the mission control clock behind the actors projected behind them, the audience allows itself to settle into the act. We know exactly what we're dealing with, and while we don't know exactly what will happen, the promise of something happening holds together a very entertaining yet disjointed sequence of readings. During this precise thirty minutes, each of the seven or so actors on stage has piles of books, notes, sometimes even an iPad to read from. Sequences range from beautiful readings of Carl Sagan, hilariously fun radio plays, or acted-out transcripts of terrifyingly lonely failed space missions. While ranging broadly, a slight political overtone exists throughout, flavored by Gil Scot Heron's "Whitey on the Moon" and a speech from JFK that seemed to focus more on beating the Russians in the space race than the importance of space travel.
After takeoff from the Cosmodrome, the second Nocturne, Microgravity, provides a beautiful and wordless exploration of zero gravity. Without wanting to give too much away, this sequence features Skinhorses Veronica Hunsinger-Loe and Spigelman in space, supported by the rest of the cast. The sequence is magical and friendly while being entirely transparent: no fancy tricks, just people working and moving together. Watching seven people silently preparing a Fluffernutter sandwich over ten minutes becomes surprisingly captivating.
After this sequence the production transitions into the final Nocturne, Kosmos. The transition, as the sequence before, slows down the pace. After what apparently was a brief technical malfunction (we wouldn't have know had they not told us — opening night jitters, I suppose), we experienced the Nocturne, starting with a striking light change. I would love to relate more detail, but my notes stop abruptly, as I was both temporarily blinded and mostly captivated by the following tech-heavy engagements.
At this point, looking at Skin Horse's mission statement for the piece becomes helpful. They find themselves "invested in theater as a holistic endeavor, in which performer, space, design, text, and sensory experience are all equal to and in dialogue with one another." So far we have covered performer with breaks of the fourth wall and fine acting, space (hah) and design through the Cosmodrome and the experience itself, and finally text through the research for the countdown sequence. What's left, sensory experience, comes full force and for a long time.
An accompanying soundscape underlies the entirety of the light show of Kosmos. Sometimes I felt like I was at a Pink Floyd concert (and ruefully wishing I had prepared that way), and sometimes like the audience was a unit experiencing the light tunnel from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Either way, most of this tech-heavy portion relies on a super-powerful projection light that sometimes feels like someone's new toy.
There are other sequences: the sun as a light, painfully slowly (eyes and time) coming towards the audience; similar planet-type lights going in a kind of orbit; and finally some twinkly stars in motion. While we can't see the cast members, each of these segments reads as excellent light-puppetry. And while each segment is beautiful in its own right, the entire sequence goes on a bit long, especially since several moments come at the cost of the viewer's retina. Finally we are returned briefly to the train station, though at one point earlier in Kosmos there was a singular light and train sound that was a touch confusing. Our comical character returns and looks up at the stars, welcoming more thoughts and dreams of the universe as the lights fade to black.
Nocturnes (I-III) provides a wonderful experience by a talented collective, with their feet firmly on theatrical ground and hands reaching towards more experimental space. While each segment holds strongly to its focus (text, movement, senses), the last comes so strongly and for so long that more traditional theatre-goers may forget the beautiful and poignant human aspects of the piece. The brief finale at the train station is a step in the right direction, a soft touch reminding the audience that space and the people who want to explore it are such stuff that dreams are made on. A great show and one perfect to coincide with the New Orleans Fringe Festival.
Nocturnes (I-III) is showing at 8 p.m. Nov. 8-9, 14-16, and 21-23.