Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review - The Little Pilot - Sandbox Theater - Great Aerial Work, Unfocused Story

I’ve been struggling with what to write about Sandbox Theatre’s latest production as part of Southern Theater’s ARTshare program - The Little Pilot.  Everything I come up with ends up sounding insulting, which is not my intention.  So let’s start with the basics - The Little Pilot is inspired by the life and adventures of award-winning author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, most widely known for his children’s book for adults, The Little Prince.  Saint-Exupéry was also noted for his exploits as a pilot, both before and during World War II.  His life and career unexpectedly ended when he and his plane both disappeared one day on what seemed like a routine reconnaissance mission.

“I was used to being alone up in the sky, but down on the ground.  It was unbearable.”

In order to give the production of The Little Pilot a taste of that gravity-defying feel of flying, Sandbox is incorporating aerial work on silks into its storytelling for the first time.  As someone who is afraid of heights (heck, I sometimes wobble a little just making my way down the steep stairs in the seating at the Southern Theater), the impressive work by actors who aren’t professional aerialists kept me on edge while also marveling a bit at the way they hung suspended in mid-air.  The aerial work itself comes off well - I was never afraid for the actors, they always seemed to know what they were doing.  Contemplating hanging in the air like that myself was the thing that gave me pause, kept me impressed, but never took me out of the story.  In many ways the aerial work is the chief selling point of the production.

“The world will be a whole lot quieter when we’re in the dirt.”

It’s the story of The Little Pilot and the way it was told that didn’t ever quite click for me.  And the aerial work, though well done, was like a rousing song or dance number in a musical that didn’t help the forward motion of plot or character.  It was never fully integrated into the rest of the production.  The aerial work had its moments, but the story always seemed to stop for a minute until it was done, then lurched forward again.

“I never kiss under duress.”

For me, Sandbox has always flirted in the territory of being labeled pretentious.  The thing I admire about them is how they consistently avoid falling fully into that trap.  Not always, but most of the time.  The Little Pilot is a victim of this temptation on the company’s part.  In past, more effective productions, Sandbox always digs under the veneer of the things which might make your eyes roll (a title like .faust, a collection of inept performance artists, the fascination with the French language), and make you care about the characters involved in the stories as human beings with real emotions, hopes and fears (even when they're not human).

“Language is the cause of all misunderstandings.”

The Little Pilot assumes that everyone knows and loves the story of The Little Prince, and thus would be fascinated to see the life of its author explored.  The production team of artists behind The Little Pilot makes little or no effort to show us why we, like them, should be equally fascinated and in love.  The assumption makes for a dry and often confusing story of the storyteller.  Art about artists frequently rubs me the wrong way because of its reasoning that, because someone creates beauty through art, that person and their personal story are also worthwhile and important topics for discussion.

“I have no one left here on earth with whom to reminisce.”

In fact, in some of my more uncomfortable moments watching The Little Pilot, I got the distinct feeling that I was watching something unintentionally bordering on parody - a parody of the kind of production Sandbox does, rather than an actual Sandbox production.  We already had the preoccupation with all things French, especially artists (our novelist main character).  We had the small ensemble (Christian Bardin, Mark Benzel, Evelyn Digirolamo, Jonathon Dull, Katie Kaufmann, and Patrick Webster) playing multiple roles often across gender.  There’s Tim Donahue’s live music supporting the mood and pace of the production (great here, as always). 

“In those days, I thought a lot about jungle adventures.”

Halfway into the piece (in what felt like a move executed way too late in the game), we’re suddenly introduced to Saint-Exupéry’s rag tag band of fellow daredevil pilots - each manifested with their own larger than life physical presentation and vocal inflection.  Toss into the mix the fact that five out of the six performers each play the lead character Antoine at a different stage of his short life, but there’s very little done to distinguish one version of him from another, or to make Antoine stand out in any significant way from the other characters around him.  Then layer on the aerial work and the projections of visual art.

“I come to you from the other end of the world.”

This production is a first for the project co-leads - acting ensemble member Evelyn Digirolamo, who skillfully got her castmates up to speed on the silk work elements of the performance; and Kristina Kjellman, who provided the intriguing artwork that got projected on walls, silks and human bodies.  Also first time in the Sandbox director’s chair for company member Theo Langason.  A strong argument can be made for the fact that you can't expect anyone to expand their skills and improve if you don't give them a forum in which to do that.  And ARTshare exists, in part, to give the participating companies a stable home base from which to work, so they can experiment with new and different things.

“You think of a great many things when you are about to die.”

Honestly, what they needed here was either a writer or a dramaturg - someone who could sit outside of the story and all the fascinating research and inventive physical work and see if there was any kind of structure or build to the story underneath the production.  When ensemble-created work succeeds, it’s a marvelWhen it doesn’t, more often that not it’s because the production doesn’t have a strong narrative spine underneath its shiny skin.  There’s a compelling idea and a good collection of ingredients in The Little Pilot - the whole thing’s just not quite cooked yet.

Still, though it might not be all it could be yet, The Little Pilot is still worth seeing for what it is.

3 stars - Recommended

(Photo: Evelyn Digirolamo in Sandbox Theatre's production of The Little Pilot - photo by Matthew Glover with original painting projection by Kristina Fjellman)

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