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Mutant Pop Opera Meditates on Time

On stage I see two large white cushion-looking things, and think the performers will lounge on them at some point during the show. But midway through All Time Stop Now the music halts and in the silence these objects come to life. They fill with air, transforming into giant white inflatable hand-like sculptures. The smaller one takes shape while two of the performers circle, helping its tube digits unfurl. Farther upstage the giant one begins to take shape…a much longer endeavor. Helping this massive one emerge are two performers who look like they might be carrying giant plastic parts in some sort of dystopian future factory run by sentient machines. Upon unfolding, it has grown to the size of a large maple tree, almost touching the light grid hanging from the lofted theater ceiling. I think of that moment in time when my feed was full of dance memes featuring the commercial application of this technology, the silly inflatable dancing guy found outside of gas stations. These inflatables are monumental and trippy, referencing human hands but monstrous in their floppy machine driven movement. There is no soundtrack for this moment in the experimental opera All Time Stop Now, written and directed by Los Angeles based artist Anna Luisa Petrisko. The only sounds are the whirring of the fans filling the inflatables with air, the soft shuffles and scrapes made by the performers helping the objects activate, and the murmurs of the audience as they take in this strange landscape. This quiet moment brought to mind John Cage’s piece “4’33,” a composition where a performer sits at a piano and plays the silent composition by not playing anything at all. This moment on the mainstage at On the Boards wasn’t completely silent but it was a stark contrast to the musically saturated indie pop soundscape that was the focus of the rest of the offering.

Photo by Bruce Tom.

Full of psychedelic live feed projections of the dancers in motion, the choreography reminds me of gestures from sacred ceremonies as well as the flat bitmap-like movement of characters in retro video games like Zelda. Almost everything feels intentionally two dimensional and graphic, evoking images of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Keith Haring paintings. This makes the appearance of the inflatables a weighty interruption pulling us into the three dimensions of the space we are actually in. Otherwise the performance feels like a drawing that comes to life. The costumes, featuring glyphs that resembled squiggles, dots and lines, are constructed in a way that plays with the flatness of the body. Large patterned coats add stiffness to areas that would usually bend, like the elbows. The set and costumes could have been inspired by the Jazz print disposable cups from the 1990s. A general 90s nostalgia permeates this opera, making me think of a pre-iPhone world in which having a home computer was a luxury and a dial up modem was needed to slowly access the World Wide Web. A nostalgia for a more idealistic time for technology that would help make our lives easier and connect us to a global community.

The music was sweet and slightly sinister in its constant optimism. Josephine Shetty’s (aka indie music artist Kohinoorgasm) voice stood out to me in this production, the clarity and inviting ephemeral tone of this artist’s voice matches the futuristic candy-colored Saved By the Bell world. A solo from Peter Hernandez was also a highlight. Hernandez’s unique crashing wave of a voice brought a beautiful angst filled texture into the mix, hinting at the grief lying under the surface of this soothing musicality. The titles of the songs contain the poetry of the piece: Peace is a House, Willingness to Try, Play with Time…this work meditates on connection, time and relationship to technology and the environment.

Photo by Bruce Tom.

All Time Stop Now is rooted in the after effects of the pandemic shutdown on our sense of time and dimensionality. The appearance of the mysterious white inflatables later was in stark contrast to the 2-D quality  of the rest of this very colorful show full of psychedelic live feed projections and music video segments with Zoom-like aesthetics. My favorite: a sweet house party documentary video featuring a large group of friends chilling and singing karaoke for the song “Peace is a House”. In another music video section, the giant screen is split into 4 quadrants, the 4 performers’ heads in a Zoom-like grid, cult-like as they stare into the camera wearing purple sequined outfits. As this recording is projected the real life performers walk onto the stage wearing the same costumes from the video. They lie down in a circle resting their heads on each other and watch with the audience. This creates a wrinkle in time as we see them active and enlarged on screen and resting and true to size in the present moment. The music that accompanies this scene is a somber lullaby meditating on the concept of time itself. 

This entire work demonstrates harmony, moving together and resting together as meditative strategies that might help us deal with our dystopian reality. Only four performers are onstage but multitudes of dancers are created through live feed video, the dancers multiplied and folded in on each other through the use of projection mapping. The “real” people move before me, but the dance is in seeing how they are knowingly making pathway choices and shapes specifically for the mapping technology and its mandala like effects. I think of how much the experience of the shutdown during the pandemic rewired my brain as I trance out on the lush kaleidoscope patterns created on the big screen in this cavernous space with a crowd of people.

Photo by Bruce Tom.

Once the inflatables were gone, I missed them. Even in the midst of the soothing mutant pop sounds and visuals I yearned for the energy of real people moving real objects in front of me, the sound of living feet walking across the stage, the breathing sounds of the performers. Perhaps those inflatable hands are a monument to the yearning for touch that was magnified by the shutdown of 2020. The projections are a monument to our savior…live video streaming!! Zoom is great when we have to use it but I want to be scooped up by these tentacle G-d hands and taken up into the heavens of the theater’s ceiling. The lack of touch during isolation had us cozied up in virtual space together. Yet we were still alone (or in small pods) and tripped out…touch starved…not sure what was fully dimensional, what was flat, what was real, what was unreal. My imagination remembers this era as supremely bizarre, spending hours on video conference application grids for work and socializing, trying to read subtle emotional cues inside of formats that are basically corporate video games for adults. This opera experiments with the liminal space between the virtual, in person, and a third unknown and perhaps spiritual thing. There is an idealism that feels authentic but at a distance. The grief is found in the angst filled harmonies of the quartet and the weirdly silent abstract inflatables. There is hope in the smiling faces of the performers as they sing that all will be ok in the end…even if nothing is ok right now…even if we aren’t sure what we are looking at or what we are feeling about it all. The attempt to stop time won’t work but these spell casters know that. We can’t stop time but we can hold on to hope that we can authentically connect with the precious time that is given to us.

All Time Stop Now by Anna Luisa Petrisko played at On the Boards December 2023.