It’s hard to know what to say about Live Action Set’s latest devised, company-created new work The Sparrow. In a lot of ways the production defies description, and sense. Neither of which in and of itself is a bad thing. The Sparrow is two very different half hour blocks of performance, with an intermission between for a rather startling costume change, as well as a change in mood, tone and delivery. You have the give the Live Action Set folks credit for just going for it. They’re throwing a whole lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I suppose how successful they are really depends on who you ask because the whole thing is massively open to interpretation.
The first half of The Sparrow is told almost completely through movement. Any sound out of the enormous cast of almost two dozen performers is not words but breath, chanting or screaming. Not a word is spoken in part one, unless you count the soundtrack in the second part of that section, which gives us Nina Simone singing “Wild Is The Wind,” then AronChupa’s foul-mouthed dance track “I’m An Albatraoz.” There really isn’t anything in the printed program to ground you to what’s going on, and if you check their website as I did after the fact, you get:
“Sea-weary sailors regard the arrival of a sparrow as the harbinger of a journey's end. With it, momentum recycles, and a new journey begins. "The Sparrow" celebrates a world of infinite possibilities as it takes hold of joy by the jowls in this new portrait of explosive expression by genre-blurring Live Action Set.”
Um… ok… if you say so. If you’d asked me to describe it to you without looking at the website, I wouldn’t have come up with sailors at all. Bird? Definitely. And there’s a fair amount of time spent with people writhing around on the floor in ways that make you think of the tide rolling in, or people riding waves. When I encounter dance, and the first half of The Sparrow is unquestionably a dance piece, I tend to worry less about things like a strict plot or narrative. Honestly, to be told afterward that there was a story was a little bewildering.
Partway in, it starts to morph into a depiction of what seems like eggs being fertitlized, zygotes forming, and a baby bird breaking out of an embryonic sack. That last is probably part one’s most stunning visual, so kudos to Sam Kruger for embodying that image so fully. He was in that plastic bag so long I was starting to worry about him. A lot of credit for the most evocative moments in the first half has to go to the women of the ensemble, though. Unfortunately in the dim light, with no headshots and only a list of names to go by, even a search on the internet only leads to wild guesses on my part as to who is who. The women drive most of the movement of the narrative in the first half, though, particularly a blue-outfitted dancer who becomes the titular bird in question (and I think the internet just helped me identify her as Eve Schulte).
When the audience comes back from intermission and the second half starts, we’re in more brightly lit, and brightly costumed, territory. Also, everyone emerges on stage as exaggeratedly crass and grotesque individuals. The speaking begins right away, and almost right away I found myself thinking, “Man, I wish they’d stop talking and go back to the movement and chanting again.” (Which, after sitting through and concentrating on a half-hour of that already in the first half, was not a response I was expecting.)
We’re served a strange, disjointed stew of existential musings that I can only call “Non-Sequitur White Privilege Theater.” Maybe I’ve just had too many people in my life kill themselves recently to have a lot of sympathy for characters onstage who bemoan the state of being alive, being healthy, having a job, a place to live, a car, someone to love, family.
Calling them characters is charitable since we don’t really get much of a chance to spend time with any one of them or really get to know them. Most members of the very large ensemble get a quick turn at engaging the audience with tales of loneliness, disconnectedness and isolation. The forays into absurdity and improv that are present don’t seem to serve a purpose. The women aren’t really driving the forward motion of the second half of the evening and that may also be part of the problem.
Here again, there’s a single moment that stood out for me, and tellingly it had two people interacting rather than just individually breaking the fourth wall to not quite, almost talk to the audience. Two guys (I’m taking a wild stab at identifying them here - Benjamin Kolis and Kalen Keir) get right up in one another’s personal space, taking turns grasping the back of one another’s neck to use each other as ventriloquist’s dummies. The proximity of their faces to one another throughout this extended sequence ended up being pretty homoerotic, and because it was the rare example of two people actually interacting in the second half, it was very compelling to watch.
I’d be hard pressed to tell you how the first and second halves of the evening fit together thematically. The program does a little riff on the title The Sparrow - also namechecking “espero” (which can be translated to “I hope”) and “despair-row.”
Also, the use of Nina Simone seems a little careless here. A number of the artists involved may identify as artists of color but with only one exception I could catch, the group as a whole presents itself visually as almost blindingly white. Just looking at the names doesn’t help - Mark Benzel, Todd Bruse, Torre Edahl, Deanna Gooding, Robert Haarman, Cate Jackson, Anna Johnson, Kalen Keir, Benjamin Kolis, Sam Kruger, Jennifer Mack, Eric Marinus, Vladimir Messing, Yvonne Mont Martin, Blake Nellis, Chelsie Newhart, Alys Ayumi Ogura, Rachel Petrie, Jennifer Pray, Peter Rusk, Tony Sarnicki, Eve Schulte, and Kathleen Willard - because, again, all but one seemed to be firmly rooted in European ancestry. As for the rest of the production team, we have co-directors Noah Bremer and Joanna Harmon, along with assistant director Schulte. Keir and Petrie do double duty as music directors, Harmon doubles up with costume design and Megan Reilly designed the lights.
Given that Nina Simone means a lot of things to a lot of people, and given our uncomfortably highly charged racial atmosphere right now, also currently being manipulated by candidates for political points in an election year, you want to tread lightly. I don’t think there’s anything overtly cynical or manipulative going on here with Live Action Set, but it could be misinterpreted as a move to get a contact high off a significant artist of color for the pleasure of considering yourself diverse. I’m not saying white people shouldn’t have the pleasure of dancing to Nina Simone. But she is not simply pretty background music for anyone, especially not for white folks. Proceed with caution. That music’s a lot more loaded than you think it is. Give it the respect and deliberate use it deserves.
Live Action Set is right to lead with the movement first, since it’s the stronger and more successful of the two experiments going on here. Both parts of the evening give audiences a lot to think about and discuss, but if you’re like me and my theatergoing companion on opening night, you may spend a lot of that time scratching your head in confusion. The Sparrow may be one of those theater pieces that’s meant more to be experienced than understood in any literal sense. And good on Live Action Set for giving it a try. That's what the support of ARTshare at the Southern Theater is for, taking risks and trying new things.
3 stars - Recommended
(photos: Eve Schulte, and Sam Kruger, in Live Action Set's The Sparrow - photographer: Bill Cameron)