Developed from their earlier Urbanopolis, which ran at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO, Subterranea: An Urban Fairytale is the latest production from underappreciated aerial troupe extraordinaire Suspended Cirque. Opening with Joshua Dean’s futuristic hobo Pan making small, uh, “talk” (Pan uses nonsense-speak) with the incoming audience, Subterranea can best be described as Dr. Seuss gone cyber. As a synthesized voice welcomes us to our visit to this strange land, Pan helpfully pantomimes the consequences of cellphone use and photography during the performance before the curtains part to reveal three amorphous bundles dangling in midair. Bathed in red lighting against the blackness of the stage, chandeliers crafted from empty, upside-down water bottles hanging from hoops come into focus. As the purple fabric begins to writhe, the cocoons conjure up an Alien creepiness. After slowly unfolding from their aerial wombs, which morph into sturdy strips, a trio of gothic female extraterrestrials (the troupe’s tall blonds Angela Jones and Kristin Olness as Prima and Hecate, and its petite brunette Michelle Dortignac as Echo) perform an alluring modern dance in midair. They’re trying to entice our protagonist, The Man, played by Suspended Cirque’s lanky vaudevillian straight man Ben Franklin, who has just descended—via a white fabric strip—into their dark underworld.
As Pan and these aerial aliens perform experiments on The Man, their riveting mime and acrobatics replace the need for talk—which is why the 90% gibberish script works. Subterranea is smartly all show and little tell—and more interactive than the troupe’s previous work, as the characters aren’t afraid to break the fourth wall and make the audience conspirators in their childlike silliness. On the production’s Blade Runner-style set crafted from recycled parts (as are the costumes), Pan plays the flute, The Man sings, and guest performer Megan Loomis as Pandora/The Phoenix belts out tunes operatically and wields her sweet violin as an aural weapon. Yet even during the musical numbers, the action continues in the background; there’s no downtime as we’re swept up in The Man’s Joseph Campbell-type odyssey. The artists behind these characters are like gifts that keep on giving, growing and sharing their passion in lieu of trying to impress us with their talent, always pushing forward, and up, up, and away.
As Loomis communicates through her music, the aerialists through their bodies, it soon becomes clear that Subterranea is highlighting specific senses (hearing and physical touch) that interact in an aesthetically powerful combination to rival our usual focus on the visual, which in this case feels as familiar and foreign as watching monkeys fly. The glittery female acrobats—who have pieces of newspaper woven into their cyber-styled hair, and are delineated by color (Echo in red, Prima in green and Hecate in blue)—perform breathtaking ballet on suspended chains. A big black Pandora’s box contains hoops adorned with shredded fabric and newspaper, along with a gas-masked monster lurking within. The polar opposite of Broadway’s highflying disaster Spider-Man, Subterranea is a tiny-budget carnival ride, both wireless and without nets, that’s unpredictable at every twist and turn. Refreshingly, we can sit back and give in to the journey with no concern as to where we’ll end up.
This is because the magic in the air and the inventiveness on the ground never stops. A pre-intermission number includes a majority of the characters taking a centerpiece spin on a midair hoop. Pan uses a glow-in-the-dark, color-changing, yo-yo object as a dance partner. Later he performs a Charlie Chaplin-like routine with balloons. The Man exclaims, “This is so much better than a PlayStation!” upon discovering a game controller that allows him to send Pan and Prima, herky-jerky as robots, into the air to perform together on a hanging metal square. As The Man “plays” them, the joy box goes haywire (with club music alternately speeding up and slowing down), turning the aerial antics into an absurd comedy routine.
Loomis’s number, “Arise,” isn’t just sung: Guest performer Lani Corson as The Spirit of Phoenix makes the tune visual with her red dance streamer. The more rigorous the physical work, the easier and more elegant the artists make it seem. To the sound of tribal beats, and wearing gas masks to powerful symbolic effect, the three women take to the silk ropes intertwined. Their body language changes completely as the temptations let loose from the black box transform them from harmless sprites into vicious ninjas. The lighting and music during a slow-mo scene is evocative, the battle sequence with The Spirit and her ribbon acting as The Man’s protective force truly thrilling. And the reds, yellows, and oranges of hanging fabric and of The Phoenix’s tattered costume set the stage on metaphorical fire during the finale.
Subterranea is a sensory overload experience that’s 100% organic, that isn’t looking to fit a genre. Director and co-creator Andrew Oswald seems to intuitively understand this troupe and molds the artistry rather than imposes a form, smartly stepping out of this beautiful bulldozer’s way.
For more information about Subterranea: An Urban Fairytale, including ticketing information, click here.