Posted by: strugglesome | September 13, 2011

Finding Nemo: Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental Presents WHaLE OPTICS

There are shows that you watch, comfortably, in your seat, arms crossed, mind alert, critical reflexes engaged, smug smile gracing your visage. A lot of shows are like that. And then there are shows that bypass your silly 10 pound brain and run straight through your heart, causing your mouth to hang open for hours on end and your body to float away. You don’t itch and scratch, you don’t squirm, you don’t wonder what your hair is doing. You divorce yourself entirely from your physicality and just immerse yourself in the act of witnessing something larger than yourself. You remember about the origins of theater in ritual, in communal experience, in sacred custom. And that is the kind of show Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental in collaboration with the 5 performers has created in WHaLE OPTICS. Which…isn’t particularly surprising, if you think about it. Thaddeus Phillips doesn’t tend to aim for anything less than astonishing. And luckily for us, Phillips generally gets what he wants.

So what exactly do whales, the internet, the lost library of Alexandria, music, Columbia, Applebees and Antarctica all have to do with each other? More than you’d think, as it turns out. WHaLE OPTICS starts with 5 separate and separated characters, all brought together to complete a project based on the stupefying songs of whales. We start with a brief interlude with Carl Sagan who demonstrates a few whale songs from the vast “whale hit parade”, much to our delight. Then Dr. Reginold Maxwell (the excellent and versatile James Ijames), to the tune of Simple Gifts, introduces his audience to the project, the players, and the point, that we will be using “the ocean as a vast sound board” for exploring music, communication, knowledge, and the depths of the human soul. As one does. We have Toshi (the matter of fact and marvelous Makoto Hirano), a world-famous composer, Lynn Cox (Lee Ann Etzold, who makes each of her many roles distinct and compelling) as the champion swimmer, Roger (the hopelessly hilarious Brian Osborne) as the geeky lone guardian of the fiber optics cables station at the edge of the ocean, and Hypatia (the sweetly endearing Emily Letts) as the cutely nerdy librarian/researcher, named for the last librarian at the famed incinerated book bank of Egypt. Together they are supposed to be making something lovely and amazing having to do with whale songs but there are, well, some difficulties. Toshi can’t seem to connect with his composition, choosing to abuse his poor sound engineer Juan (Juan Gabriel Turbay, the real life composer of this piece) instead. Roger is wild for his hot new UPS delivery lady (Etzold) but instead of asking her for coffee he orders box after box of Carl Sagan memorabilia just for the chance to see her. And because he really likes Carl Sagan memorabilia. Hypatia can’t get Toshi to notice her, or see that what she has to give him, information wise or in any other respect, has merit, and Dr. Maxwell can’t get Toshi to come to Columbia to hear some actual humpback whales (that last one I don’t really understand, who turns down a free trip?). And so begins a journey through the New York Public Library system, the wilds of Columbia, the minds of Blanco Loco, a particularly vocally innovative whale, and the recesses of the human soul.

Staged in the Prince Music Theater, Phillips has ignored the vast plushy audience bank with it’s distant comfort in favor of setting the piece and the audience on the stage. Two audience banks flank the action and create a kind of corridor for the actors. On one end of the stage is Roger’s sanctuary cum prison, a tiny fiber optics station. On the other side is Juan’s domain, a little recording studio. In between is everything else you could imagine. As Toshi, who transforms gracefully from frustrated jerk to obsessed whale chaser, moves from the studio to the library, green lights descend from the heavens and arrive at table height. Just that simple object, multiplied and hung in even rows, is enough to state “library” emphatically. Like a post-modernist architect, Phillip’s design coupled with Drew Billiau’s clean and clever lighting strips each location represented to it’s iconic essential, to the object or image that clearly signifies. And so mobile scaffolding unit becomes a cabana on the water in Columbia, a platform for Dr. Maxwell to observe his experiment down below, and the deck of a Chilean cargo ship. A sail becomes a wall, snowfall, and finally, astonishingly, a whale. Each object is as specific as it is versatile, and the images they create are so haunting that they almost succeed in distracting us from Spencer Sheridan’s video design, which is adequate at best and poor at worst. However, it does create a compelling argument for theater over film, so there is that.

So where do the whales and the optics come in? Well, it has to do with the internet, but then, what doesn’t these days? Fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor are the mechanisms that send information back and forth between continents. So we are connected to Senagal, Syria, Spain and Sweden by nothing more then a few lengths of cable, surrounded by sand. Tenuous as these connections might be, they don’t just effect our ability to call Grandpa in Ireland or google Conen O’Brien jokes, they also are effecting the communications of our marine cousins, whales, forming a right angle with the sonic pathways they use to find each other, to hear about good krill spots, or just to say hello. We don’t really know what whales say to each other, and now, all for a chance to buy shoes online, we may never know. As Hypatia patiently explains to Toshi: “Humans, though a product of nature, are consistently perpendicular to it.” And yet it is these very songs that make us feel connected to whales. Yes, we all breathe air and have babies etc., but hey, mice do that, and we don’t think much of them. Whales sing to each other, they communicate, they connect. They don’t just swim through the ocean, they call for each other, they use song to find each other across miles and waters and predators and dangers. Roger can’t even talk to Cecile (Etzold) face to face, Toshi can only connect with Hypatia through recorded tape-deck diaries, but whales can call from pole to pole and know that somewhere the message is being received.  Or they used to be able to do so, without all of our human failures to communicate getting in the way.

In one of her many incarnations Etzold, as Greta, German sound engineer turned beach bum, explains to Toshi about the wow signal. It’s scientific significance is the subject of debate, but metaphorically, it’s a game changer.  It’s the call from heaven, it’s seeing the light, it’s a switch flipped inside of you separating before and after.  For Greta, it was a Led Zepplin verse, a brief lyric from In The Light. For Toshi, it’s the innovations of Blanco Loco, the one whale who keeps changing the melody of his pod’s tune. And for the audience, well, it’s this play. This play is a wow signal, and in that way this piece is extremely generous, it includes us in it’s wonder, it dazzles us with it’s magic, it invites us in on every level. It feels communal, which is a surprisingly hard thing to do with a room full of people. Can it and should it tighten up with time, trimming down the handful of moments that are wonderful but not essential? Sure. But even in it’s current state as a three hour odyssey it’s still mesmerizing, it’s “equivalent to getting a tattoo under water”.

The more we are told about whales, by Hypatia, Carl Sagan, Ignacio the guide (Ijames), the more we long, like Toshi, to dive into the ocean and follow their flippers south, to Antarctica. And as Toshi, the emerging hero of this piece, delves deeper and deeper into the rhythms of the whales he does, in fact, “dive”, giving us some of the most haunting and and gorgeous images of Hirano “floating” on the back of Etzold, drowning in imaginary tides, swimming through a icy sea, and finally, FINALLY, suspended in the air in front of us, looking directly at a humpbacked whale. It may in fact be just fabric, draped over a blow up boat, hanging from the ceiling, but in truth? It’s a whale. A real live whale in front of us. We don’t need a muse of fire to know that WHaLE OPTICS gives us truths more powerful then facts.

Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental has finished it’s run of WHaLE OPTICS at the Live Arts/Fringe Festival, and if you missed it, well, I’m very sorry. But hopefully Phillips will do this show again. And soon. Find out more about his other works here.

Comments? Questions? Concerns? I welcome them all! Please feel free to comment below!



  1. Excellent review Leah, I so wish I could have seen it!

  2. Leah, am impressed with your review.Your description made me realize I missed a good show. Are you writing reviews for more plays in the festival? Maybe you can suggest one.
    My love to your folks.

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