A young woman alone, searching. An object suffused with memory. A stunning, desolate landscape. An ever-present loss. Stephanie Fleischmann has mined these themes for their melancholy beauty for nearly twenty years, increasingly seeking collaboration with artists versed in new technology to portray more effectively the ineffable on stage.
In Eloise and Ray, produced by New Georges in 2000, a teenager sits by an empty roadside, her only company the guitar once played by her missing brother. The audience watches as the elements age her, in time-lapse photography on a large screen upstage, her face left withered and weather-beaten like a forgotten billboard. The film may be the teen’s fears realized or the cost of stoicism or a vision of the future to which only we are privy.
In 2002, Interart presented What The Moon Saw or “I Only Appear To Be Dead,” inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Match Girl.” In this version, the girl burns all her inventory, stick by stick, for the vision of domestic comfort each flame briefly conjures. Here it is not words, but an eerie (yet strangely hopeful) sound effect which places us in post-9/11 Manhattan. Several times during the play, a plane is heard overhead, followed by a soft explosion, and then a high-pitched note that rings into the darkness, as all the actors lift their heads toward the sky and listen.
This year’s Red Fly/Blue Bottle at HERE is a fully multi-media experience, described as “a theatrical event that bridges concert, cabinet of curiosities, and video installation.” Fleischmann is an equal partner to experimental composer Christina Campanella, who combines live vocalists and musicians with found sounds (ice cream trucks, old movie projectors, ticking clocks) that have been electronically altered, creating a hypnotic, echoing soundscape.
Fleischmann’s writing has always had a dreamlike, lyrical quality; setting it to music is a natural progression. Nearly all of the words in Red Fly/Blue Bottle will be sung, most by mesmerizing alternative actress Jesse Hawley, a member of Radiohole and National Theater of the United States, and indie singer-songwriter Chris Lee.
Even dialogue meant to be spoken reads like poetry.
Pin clover thread cufflink feather spoon spring
I put them I put them there. And as I put they start to say—
Like letters in the alphabet— I see them strange—
Like the firefly, his blinking code,
True to Fleischmann’s interest in cross-pollination, her poetry evokes visual art. The text alone calls to mind Joseph Cornell’s Victorian-inspired shadow boxes. These miniature collections of found objects are whimsical and lovely, pointing to “the magic and strange in the everyday”—a topic Fleischmann says fascinates her—and often a bit precious, surrealism without the expected shock.
Add the soundscape, however, and the artist evoked is Louise Bourgeois, a darker and weirder kind of sculptor, whom Fleischmann confirms was a conscious influence.
Bourgeois’s forms ooze and blob and hang from ceilings. They are organic rather than curated, their beauty large and even grotesque; no boxes will contain it. Her famous giant spider sculptures seem crafted from mud and tree branches, even though they are steel. The spiders’ legs end in sharp points; they balance and perch in a constant state of about-to-move.
Campanella’s compositions create a similarly primal mood. Theatergoers are enveloped in Tom Waits-ian driving rhythms, reverberating minor chords, and an intricately orchestrated layering of sounds both familiar and mysterious.
Red Fly/Blue Bottle is less a music-theater piece than a multi-media installation, in which live performers are one of the media. Audiences would do well not to expect a narrative that can be easily recounted.
Campanella plays the Operator, front-and-center, the contemporary figure from whom the “story” unspools—or rather, the sounds and images that mark important points in a life gone past. She is both narrator and band member. (She might more aptly be named the Orchestrator).
Black-Eyed Susan portrays the Old Lady, a wry and peculiar also-narrator, an entomologist whose mind gets caught in loops, insects’ Latin names intruding in memories of her youth. Hawley is her young self, Clarissa, abandoned and longing for answers.
The piece purports to be “about what happens when a young woman speaks out.” But the moment Clarissa speaks out—to tell the world that her lover has gone missing in a war everyone pretends isn’t happening—is ultimately less about the telling than about gathering the courage to tell.
O I’m all coiled up
Like this spring—
I’m ready to rise
Through the air
Spring in my palm like a ring
Spring in my palm like a ring
I’m ready to sing
Like a train
Hammering through the night
Similar to Bourgeois’s lanky predators, the characters in Red Fly/Blue Bottle are often depicted in precarious stasis, just a moment before moving forward. Fleischmann and Campanella (who met circa 1997 when the actress played a singing mermaid in the writer’s Far Sea Pharisee) have always been interested in “important threshold moments.”
The Man who left Clarissa is seen several times, both live and on ghostly film (by Peter Normann), about to step off the train carrying him to war.
His lit-up insides
His shiny on and off
Is off, gone away
See how he arrives in that strange and foreign place
“Everything will change once his foot lands on the ground,” says Fleischmann.
What takes a short time in “real” life takes much longer for Fleischmann’s characters. In many of her plays, a simple geographical step becomes a life-changing psychological undertaking.
Queried about this theme, Fleischmann reveals a relevant personal detail. At the age of seven, she moved from England to Los Angeles, where her father became director of the Philharmonic. Instead of glossing over the seismic shift with a relatively quick plane ride, her parents marked the occasion with a voyage on the Queen Elizabeth.
“It was a really monumental trip,” she remembers. “We just missed a hurricane. Everybody was seasick except for me. I got stuck in an elevator for hours. I had a fear of going in elevators by myself for years. There was a fancy dress party, and I used the doilies from the breakfast in the dining hall to dress up as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and I won a prize. A little sailor doll.”
Very little resembles limbo more than being stuck in an elevator. Fairy wings made of paper doilies exemplify the ordinary turned magical. A sailor doll would fit perfectly into a shadow box.
Fleishmann is constantly inspired by her past, consciously or not, as her characters are haunted by theirs.
The Man wants to take back the moment when his world changed and a clock exploded in his hand, calling him to battle. The Old Lady broadcasts her story via short-wave radio, night after night. She, too, obsesses over the past. Her object-turned-metaphor is a common fly, its buzzing her first clue that the Man is departing for sinister territory.
Trace the tracings of his boots
Metallic shavings left behind
In his path like Gretel’s crumbs
A line, a trail of bb guns
Paradoxically, Red Fly/Blue Bottle creates an unearthly atmosphere through close examination of (sometimes even a religious devotion to) the mundane.
There is no “ordinary wondering” here, despite lyrics to the contrary. It is all extraordinary. The characters want to stop time, but the author actually does it. Each song is a meditation on a moment. The moment is drawn out, lengthened, examined, illuminated, somehow made more beautiful by being looked at so carefully.
“Look closer,” Clarissa urges herself. Experience more deeply, these artists seem to urge their audiences. Seeing and seeking are more important than knowing. Journeys are more interesting than destinations. Embrace mystery. Intuit instead.
The ink black coal dark underside
He sewed his own clothes
The lining in the quiet
A gentle man with quiet ways
Of unknown terrible things
Red Fly/Blue Bottle can be seen April 8-May 2 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue in Soho, Mondays @ 7PM, Wed-Sat @ 9PM, Sundays @ 4 & 7PM. $20. www.here.org.
Sonya Sobieski is a playwright and dramaturg.