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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Arriving at the McKittrick Hotel for Flight, it's easy to get swept up in the mysterious aura that pervades the home of Sleep No More. You're moved through several staging areas with hushed but direct instructions. Atmospheric lighting, settings, and music build anticipation. Soon you're being separated from your group as you're escorted behind a curtain.
After all this build up, it's a bit surprising—maybe even disappointing—to find yourself being seated in a slightly beat-up office chair and outfitted with headphones. You're in a semi-private booth facing a carousel structure that rotates slowly to the left. A strip of white light passes before your eyes; the presentation will begin at its end.
Above and below the white strip are small dioramas, tableaus offering little context on the surface. Soon the end of the strip appears, and the booth darkens. You feel a rumbling. The footsteps of those being seated elsewhere around the carousel are drowned out by narration, and Flight has begun.
While a ticket boastfully proclaims Flight to be "a new form of theater," one could argue that it isn't theater at all. There are no performers, and the creative act here has already been fully realized. Once you're seated, your engagement is completely a solo, intimate act facilitated by craft arts and technological prowess.
You experience the story through pre-recorded audio—which combines music and sound design by Mark Melville with a script by Oliver Emanuel, based on Caroline Brothers's 2012 novel Hinterland—and the dioramas. Each capturing a moment like a snapshot, these are illuminated one by one in narrative progression, evoking comic book panels.
Our protagonists are two Afghan brothers, Kabir (voiced by Nalini Chetty) and Aryan (Farshid Rokey), who attempt a hazardous journey from Kabul towards asylum in London. While these characters are fictitious, the stakes are not: Brothers wrote Hinterland based on conversations with actual young refugees across Europe.
Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, the co-artistic directors of Vox Motus who conceived the production, note that when they first discussed adapting Brothers's novel, they wondered if the story would be irrelevant by the time they finished. Instead, their production comes at a moment when what was once considered a fringe issue has exploded into international consciousness. Issues of migration dominate headlines. Influxes of immigrant and refugee populations have strengthened nationalist movements in the United States and in Europe.
Flight is not explicitly political. Instead of focusing on policy or politicians, it focuses on two boys whose journey is as much timeless as it is modern. Their Odyssean travels across Europe entail encounters both good and bad. They meet monsters as well as friends, move forward and experience setbacks. Behind the numbers, behind speeches and network news outrage, migration is depicted as a human issue.
The complexity of the issue, however, doesn't always mesh nicely with a form of storytelling that relies on distilling moments to still images. The story proceeds as a series of beats to hit, rather than fully formed episodes, and the characters feel undeveloped below the surface level.
Where the story feels simplified, the presentation hardly is. The visuals are striking and the modelmaking (led by Rebecca Hamilton) is impressive, making use of clever tricks of perspective and material effects. Simon Wilkinson brings a thoughtful full-scale lighting design to many miniature sets. Sav Scatola and Kenneth MacLeod also contribute to the character and storyboard art, respectively.
While the carousel is certainly a novelty and makes for a memorable execution, it's easy to wonder if a typical theatrical presentation would be a more effective means of telling this story — but it's undeniable that a traditional staging would be far less likely to linger in one's memory than the phenomenon of peering into the many windows that make up Flight. Purists may shy away, but for those who enjoy something different, the experience at least offers an interesting provocation if not an outright revelation.
Sadly, Hinterland's story has not become less timely in the years since Edmunds and Harrison first decided to create art (for it is certainly art, if not theater) from it. Even if the story is told imperfectly, it is one worth telling—now more than ever. And if it's told in such a visually intriguing way, then all the better. This is not a Flight without turbulence, but the destination is still worthwhile.
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Based on the novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers
Adapted by Oliver Emanuel
Directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison
Lighting designer: Simon Wilkinson
Co-designer and Lead Model Maker: Rebecca Hamilton
Composer and Sound Designer: Mark Melville
Character artist: Sav Scatola
Storyboard artist: Kenneth MacLeod
Voice cast: Nalini Chetty (Kabir), Farshid Rokey (Aryan), Emun Elliott (Narrator), ensemble: Waleed Akhtar, Maryam Hamidi, Chris Jack, Robert Jack, Adura Onashile, and Rosalind Sydney
Running Time: 1 hour with no intermission
A production of Vox Motus, presented by the McKittrick Hotel and Emursive at the McKittrick, 530 West 27th Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues)
Tickets: From $45; (212) 904-1880 or www.mckittrickhotel.com
From 1/30/2018; opened 2/11/2018; closing 4/20/2018
Performance times: Tickets are available for 45 minute blocks. Start times are between 5 and 9:30 pm on weekdays and 2 and 11 pm on weekends.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 2/9/2018 performance
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