'Orbit' searches for love and a real connection
Rachel Howard | Special to The Chronicle
| SF Chronicle | July 2006
What makes Erika Shuch's work so
arresting isn't the way she intuitively melds movement and theater,
or the knack she has
for attracting brilliant collaborators, or the Gen Y appeal
of her slouchy, all-too-human performers. What's made this still-young
choreographer a standout since she emerged in San Francisco
years ago is her childlike audacity in the face of big questions.
Shuch is a maker of metaphors, an
existential explorer whose characters consider their place in
the galaxy through poetic
symbols. When Shuch's ideas get away from her, the product
can be ponderous. But when her philosophical free association
on flesh-and-blood relationships, the results can be utterly
Orbit," which just opened a three-week run at Intersection
for the Arts, is mostly a case of the latter. It is profound
but not pretentious, spectacularly clever and arguably Shuch's
best work yet.
The metaphor this time is the search
for extraterrestrial life, examining the human need for connection
and the high odds against
truly achieving it. Shuch and fellow cast member Danny Wolohan
rush onstage, kissing madly, then repel one another. A voice-over
tells us that "Orbiting is missing the target. One object
doesn't see or feel the effects of the other object" --
a concept reinforced by the bright bull's-eye adorning the side
of Shuch's dress.
The richness with which Shuch is
able to deepen the metaphor is dazzling. Shuch's character soon
tells us that she's been
sending signals into space, and in short order (and punchy
dialogue) we learn about exo-planets and the luminosity of stars,
light-emitting beetles and the statistical improbability that
a signal sent into space will ever make contact. Shuch parcels
out her symbols in potent lines and leaves them ample room
to resonate. The choreography has moments of simple magic. Shuch
and Wolohan have an early duet in which he lifts her feet to
the wall and bounces her against it like an astronaut bounding
on the moon. Soon Melanie Elms appears as a vampiric alien
the show's best performance, both sexy and funny), leading
a chorus of sci-fi visitors.
Shuch was fortunate early in her
career to team with music director and vocal coach Dwayne Calizo.
For "Orbit," he and
sound designer Daveen DiGiacomo adapt everything from Snow White's "Some
Day My Prince Will Come" to "Blue Moon," which
becomes a laugh-out-loud tango for Elms and her cohorts.
Shuch's steady collaborator Sean
Riley did the smart set design: skewers of books, lamps and televisions
hang from the ceiling,
sliding back and forth to effectively carve the venue's cramped
space. Ishan Vernallis contributed the video design, which
includes some effects too surprising to be revealed here.
Despite all these assets and a solid
conceptual footing, "Orbit" does
have a few pitfalls. The hourlong piece is most emotionally involving
when rooted in Shuch and Wolohan's relationship. Will they connect?
We want to know, and a tender duet feels immensely satisfying.
But instead of ending there, the piece hiccups through more disconnected
Wolohan, an actor with theater company
Campo Santo, could stand to dial down his plentiful bombastic
moments. A bellowing bulldog
of a man, he seems more cosmologically troubled than concerned
with whether things with Shuch will work out. Their chemistry
Still, even as "Orbit" sputters in its second half,
the occasions for laughter and wonder keep coming. Like so much
of Shuch's work, "Orbit" wants to take on the meaning
of the universe. Its scope becomes a bit too vast, but Shuch's
questions definitely connect.
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