Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings
Also see Sharon's review of Alice
With music by choral composer Eric Whitacre, realized by Taiko drummers enhanced with electronica (and a cello), the bulk of the score is not your standard musical theatre fare. Modern but not atonal, more rhythmic than melodic, Whitacre's music - particularly when sung by the entire ensemble - can be an intense musical experience, if not the sort of thing you walk out humming.
The story begins with a brief prologue, done in anime and projected on a screen, wherein we learn of a society of angels, engaged in a war. Worried about the safety of their children, the angels locked their children in a walled fortress - taking their wings so they would not be tempted to get out - and left them, promising to return soon. The action of the play begins 17 years later, and the parents have not yet returned.
As the lights come up, we discover what has become of the abandoned angel children. They've grown up waiting for the day they would join their parents in war. They wear torn, shredded clothing - it's very Road Warrior - and every night they meet in hand-to-hand challenges, battling each other over their meager possessions and food rations, while wearing impressive-looking mechanical wings. (An angel wins when he removes the other's wings - much like flag football but with really nifty flags.) When a challenge begins, each combatant is framed in a spotlight while an unseen narrator states his name - it's reminiscent of the start of a video game, when you're shown the characters that are just about to fight. And then they do, with electric martial arts choreography by Caleb Terray. Between the fighting and the music, it's a hell of an opening.
And then, unfortunately, the plot gets moving. It centers on Logos, the leader of the group who got the job since he was the eldest and never gave up on his promise to keep the other children safe. And it also centers on Exstasis, Logos's little sister, who is sweet but flighty. By following some mystical butterflies (delicately portrayed as fluttering on handheld wands by visible cast members cloaked in grey), Exstasis discovers a secret golden door, behind which she thinks their parents hid their wings. Exstasis can't get to the door, though, as there is a small river between her and it, and she can't fly over it since she has no real wings. (The fact that the angels apparently can't swim, or build a raft, is just one of many elements of this plot that do not hold up under scrutiny. One might ask why, in 17 years, none of the angels have procreated - giving birth to new winged angels would certainly solve their flightlessness issues.) When Exstasis returns to the other angels to tell them about her discovery, Logos is very quick to silence her. As the story develops, it seems that Logos is afraid that the forces of darkness still surround them, and he'd rather just wait for their parents to return than to risk a flight.
At first, Logos seems like an interesting character, in that he's opposing Exstasis but actually has good motives for doing so. Later, when we learn that Logos is willing to restrict the other angels' civil liberties in the interest of keeping them safe, it looks like there might be a decent political allegory in here, too. But this goes too far - Logos doesn't just take away the others' rights, he treats them like slaves. (Really. Forced labor under a whip-cracking overseer. I'd find this an intolerable abuse of the plot, except the in-tempo whip cracking is an exceptional addition to a second-act musical number.) But given the way Logos treats everyone but Exstasis, the only real surprise is that he has any actual followers among the angels he oppresses.
The biggest problem with the plot, though, is that we have no emotional investment in any of the characters. There's nothing particularly likeable about Exstasis. She's stupid enough to think she can fly over the river using fake wings, and she seems blissfully unaware of the privileges she gets because she's the leader's sister. By intermission, I realized that the only reason I hoped she found the wings was because I figured the stagecraft involved in making this ensemble fly would be really impressive - not for any concern for the characters.
The lyrics certainly don't help. While a lot of the lyrics are not enunciated clearly enough to be understood, the ones that are aren't worth the effort. With routine rhymes like "she's gone from me/and now I see" - and one song in which all of the words are simply of the "bum bum bum" variety - the lyrics are instantly forgettable and do nothing to move the plot along or engage us in the characters' dilemmas. Spoken dialogue often sounds forced, with the angels unnecessarily peppering their speech with Latin words and phrases and the groan-inducing "kiss my feathered ass."
The cast is committed and hard-working. Exstasis is played by Hila Plitmann, whose program credits include soloist appearances with many orchestras and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a combination which ideally suits her to Whitacre's music and Terray's fight choreography. Dan Callaway brings a more musical theatre sensibility to his Logos, and his tenor makes a nice vocal counterpoint to Plitmann's soprano. There is little to say about the acting however, as the actors are given so little to work with.
Daniel Tatar plays an angel who is conflicted between doing the right thing and being selfish, and his guilty feelings manifest themselves in an entire song. However, his plotline ultimately resolves itself in a throwaway line, and you wonder why they even bothered creating this character if they weren't going to do anything with him. Unfortunately, one could say the same thing about the entire show - it is full of brilliant sound and fury, but ultimately signifies nothing.
Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings runs at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena through September 2, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.bostoncourt.com.
The Theatre @ Boston Court - Artistic Directors Jessica Kubzansky & Michael Michetti; Executive Director Eileen T'Kaye; Producing Director Michael Seel; Managing Director Cheryl Rizzo; Founding Director Z. Clark Branson - presents Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings. Music and book by Eric Whitacre; Lyrics by David Noroņa and Eric Whitacre. Directed by Michael Michetti. Musical Direction Greg Chun; Choreography Bubba Carr; Fight Choreography Caleb Terray; Scenic Design Tom Buderwitz; Costume Design Soojin Lee; Lighting Design Steven Young; Sound Design Martin Carrillo; Hair & Make-Up Design Becca Coffman; Anime Producer Kirk Hanson; Animation Sequences Designed, Produced and Animated by Lyn Gaza, Michael Manning; Properties Design Chuck Olsen; Wing Design Richard Landon; Butterfly Design Eli Presser; Dramaturg Bryan Davidson; Assistant Director Nicole M. Wiley; Associate Producer Mark Barna; Production Stage Manager Liza Tognazzini; Casting Julia Flores; Graphic Image Christopher Shy; Key Art Christopher Komuro; Publicist Aldrich & Associates.