nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
December 9, 2009
Mortal Engine, created by the Australian company Chunky Move, is primarily a laser show and secondarily a dance piece. It is very, very cool technologically, but is theatrically lacking and repetitive.
A large white square platform, intensely raked, spans most of the stage. In semi-darkness, a dancer appears seemingly out of nowhere, rolling down the platform. Dark outlines appear on the platform, roughly silhouetting the dancer. As the dancer moves, so do the black blotches. More dancers appear, crawling over themselves, limbs frequently entangled, with insect-like movements. The moving dark patterns on the floor highlight these new dancers as well, responding to their every movement. It is like watching people dance on a giant Etch A Sketch.
This effect is created by an Interactive System Design by Frieder Weiss. Director/choreographer Gideon Obarzanek speaks about it in the program: "Frieder's interactive systems make it possible for instruments and bodies that generate light, video, sound, and movement to all share a common language and respond to each other in real time. Mortal Engine has no pre-rendered video, light, or laser images. Similarly the music mix is open allowing various sounds to be completely generated from movement data."
My big question is, then, if the movement is the source for the music and the greatest variable in creating each performance's video and laser design, then why isn't the dance more revolutionary? Why doesn't it have more contrast in moves, style, tempo, etc., so as to show us how that affects the technology?
Composer Ben Frost's music is very modern and very urban. Parts seem to be inspired by electronic, rhythmic versions of a modem dialing or a truck backing up. There is beeping, scraping, pulsing, and while it is edgy, it is also monotonous.
The most amazing part of Mortal Engine is when we get to the lasers, designed by Robin Fox. The audience is flooded with fog, and then a green laser appears, creating a hologram effect. Suddenly, I was no longer in a theatre, but in a tunnel, and the green walls were crushing in on me, tighter and tighter. The distortion of space and reality is awe-inspiring.
Chunky Move, guided by Obarzanek, pushes many limits with Mortal Engine. The audience is put through a lot during the course of an hour—you look directly into a laser, your lungs are filled with fog, and the music is exceedingly loud at points. Mortal Engine also pushes the role of technology in performance: I have never seen a production before where the tech elements felt like the most important character, and I do think this production tapped into the zeitgeist more potently than anything else I have seen. But the one frontier I wish this talented group had tackled more effectively was in dealing with the humans onstage. There is mood, but no story, arc, or conflict. A segment would start and you automatically knew that the next three or four minutes would look and feel exactly the same. Finally, the show lacks subtlety and, despite the spectacular spectacle, lacks theatricality.