As the audience enters the auditorium, people are greeted (actually hectored) by a manic official who humiliates them as though they were airline passengers. The entire set consists of several walk-through metal detectors travelers grudgingly traverse to reach airport concourses after taking off their shoes.
Footwear of every kind gets worked into the set, and suitcases are omnipresent props. The point is clear: the poetry of flight has been lost as air travel has become a form of mass transportation not to mention a billion dollar business.
One of the trademarks of performance art is the vague theatrical use of props in ways that often seem arbitrary. Some air travelers in Flight hoist a suitcase into the air on ropes and swing it around in a frenzy, like a cult of modern-day druids worshipping a 747. Later, when travelers open their suitcases, they take out an odd amalgam of useless stuff including feathers, which they then blow at each other. Why? Well, why not? It's shtick you can do with a feather. Or perhaps there is a segue intended, by way of feathers, to earlier versions of flight by birds and the men who imitated them, particularly Daedalus and Icarus. These abstract gestures the swirling suitcase and blown feathers separate the sheep from the lambs in terms of appreciating performance art. You love it or you hate it. On the night I saw the show, the audience loved it. The house was packed on a Sunday and the crowd lapped up every moment, even demanding two curtain calls.
Fortunately, Flight doesn't stay focused on commercial air travel. It moves into wider realms of anti-gravitation. These forays are not necessarily easy to follow, but they are decidedly less mundane.
The first transformation takes us into the world of falconry. Three performers have wings made of wide ties. (Costumes by Susan Gisleson.) A fourth performer is their master. She deploys them to hunt. At one point, she sends them out to bring back three apples. Is this significant or arbitrary? Later, she foretells the future of one of the falcons. He will wake up while she's asleep and fly off to freedom. But he'll be miserable. He needs her. These two have a sadomasochistic thing going on, but it's not without a modicum of tenderness.
From birds, we move to the famous myth of Daedalus and Icarus, the father and son who tried to fly. We don't get narrative so much as phantasmagoria. Daedalus was the ingenious contriver of the Labyrinth that held the Minotaur captive on the island of Crete. Daedalus fell into disfavor with King Minos and was locked up in a tower with his son. There seemed to be no way to escape, so the inventor came up with the plan of making wings out of feathers and wax, then taking flight over the sea to freedom. Icarus, however, became intoxicated with the thrill of soaring through the air. Disregarding his father's warning, he flew higher and higher toward the sun until the wax holding his wings together melted, and he fell into the sea.
The symbolism expressing this myth in Flight is outrageous and fascinating. The boy climbs onto an elevated sofa with flapping wings. Daedalus, his father, flies on a contraption that's part transformed luggage ramp, part deconstructed metal detector. Deconstruction in general figures big in the climactic moments of Flight. One of the falcons, for instance, reenters and perches on top of a metal detector that is metamorphosed into a trapeze.
The performances in Flight cannot be judged by conventional standards, anymore than can the show. The cast of Kathy Randels, Lisa Shattuck, Nick Slie, Ashley Sparks and Bruce France throw themselves with zest into their demanding roles.
A tip of the hat goes to Jeff Becker, who conceived and designed the show; J Hammons, who co-directed; Lisa D'Amour and Lisa Shattuck, who wrote the script; and Kathy Randels and Sean LaRocca, who wrote the music. Courtney Egans created the effective, glistening projections that suggest birds, planes, montgolfiers, bombs and falling apples. Those apples again. Are they a nod to Newton and gravity?