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Songs At The End of the World: A Subtle, But Effective Environmental Theatreconcert

When I saw the description on OnTheBoards.tv for Songs At The End of the World by Wunderbaum that included phrases such as “actor/musicians”, “high-energy concert” and “spectacle about dreams”, I knew this was the piece I wanted to watch. After working on a production of Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill earlier this year in which I was part of a feminist pop rock band, theatre with music is a genre I am really interested in. However, as I learned from my first critical response for an ArtsEmerson piece, descriptions can be deceptive (and/or I don’t read them closely enough). Nevertheless, I made a choice and dived in.

The piece was filmed in Austin, TX, in May 2012 as part of the Fusebox Festival, an annual hybrid arts festival. Songs begins with a Blue Man Group kind of feel, meta-theatrical right off the bat (nowadays I feel like every piece I see is meta-theatrical) (or, is that times are moving past realism where the fourth wall is unwanted and obstructive?). The stage is essentially set up for a concert with a drum set up-stage center, piano, keyboards, guitars etc. with some playing space in the middle. Hanging stage left is an LED display banner that reads information like “We will appear very soon. We are now behind the curtain but we will come into sight very soon.” A humorous, and light-hearted beginning. The LED banner then tells us to envision that we are in Antarctica. Ah yes, the magic of theatre. The suspension of disbelief. But then the banner reads:

“Here, we will start anew in our childhood. To think about how it could have turned out otherwise, how it could BE otherwise, not because we have miserable lives, but because we want to dream.”

A simple, yet really beautiful idea. I instantly became really interested in what was to come. In general, I think it’s feasible to say that not many people think about Antarctica often, or at least I don’t, so I found it to be a pleasantly surprising, brilliant place to set a play about childhood and dreams. It’s a land that is completely white and generally empty, the biggest white, blank canvas for an artist to explore in. I never thought of Antarctica that way.

The group comes on in big, red parkas. The size of the parkas in comparison to the size of their bodies further infantilizes them. They kick-off the piece with a song in which the lyrics of the main chorus are “we bring mountains to the snow”; the song is catchy and has an indie pop feel. As they bop around in their parkas, the tone of the piece is definitely established as child-like, playful and perhaps even silly.

Then, the “theatre” part of their “theatreconcert” begins. They do this through little vignettes of childhood stories that are made more fantastical. The company transitions from vignette to vignette in a very improvisatory-like manner; it’s as if we are looking into the rehearsal room of a group of actors where one just starts playing the piano and making up a song, and the rest of the actors begin to act it out so this is very exciting for an audience member.

In the third vignette, a male actor and female begin to “ice skate” together on stage, which is inherently humorous because they must simulate it on a hard floor, moving their bodies in a way that gestures towards leaps and double axels, they even make sound effects using their own voices. Again, all very playful and generally a pleasure to watch. I could say that I was, at this point, asking impatiently, “okay… so what’s the point?” but I wasn’t. I was just simply charmed by it all.

In the next vignette, we are looking into an eleven-year old girl’s audition into a performing arts school. The actress has crazy hair, is wearing blue face paint, a big, cerulean sweater, and has stuffed balls of what looks like long toilet paper into her tights. This is all generally hilarious. She is the stereotypical performance artist at age eleven. As she begins to do her audition, which ends with blood-curdling screams of words like “skiddadle”, I am both laughing my head off as well as significantly impressed. Because it is an adult performing artist playing a child performing artist, this also turns into another meta-theatrical moment for me. I saw how the commitment from the actor playing the role is equal to the commitment of the young character. In what felt like a split second, I realized that I was impressed by the bravery of the artist to be so completely outlandish and at the same time questioned why I felt that way. Children are outlandish every day and yet, I am not “impressed” with them. Hmm, interesting. I was beginning to see the qualities of children and moreover, our childhood and past that somehow get warped and not transported to future adulthood.

Then, we see the young performing artist have an interaction with her more stoic, soft-spoken father. She tells her father about the people “over there” and gushes about how they are a “liberated”, “free people”. In response, her father says that it is “not true” and that she will “find out”.  She then explains that when she was younger, her father told her that he would prefer to give up all his possessions and share everything, but “only if everyone else would do the same”.  Through this, we begin to see the connection between our child selves and our adult selves more clearly as well as our connection to the greater world.

From this point on, the piece started to pick-up like a rolling snowball that keeps accumulating more snow. (Excuse the cheesy metaphor.) (Or don’t.) I apologize for the, perhaps, extensive summary for everything prior to this moment, but I felt it necessary to set-up the feeling of how the piece begins in order to understand how it moves later. Essentially, the piece makes you think it’s this unassuming work of music and childhood stories when, in fact, it is speaking to current environmental issues, both in the physical landscape of the world but also in the interpersonal landscape between people. Because it only sprinkles these ideas throughout the piece, the message is effective in that it doesn’t slap you in the face with it. Instead, we subconsciously start to see the land and our childhood as one. As it moves on, the piece makes you want to fight for your inner child as well as the neglected “child” around us. And, while all of this is happening, there is some fun, transformative musical accompaniment and songs.

For instance, there is a vignette about a young boy who relates to penguins because they cannot fly like the other birds. On the one hand, I feel for the misunderstood, different child, but on the other hand, I notice that I don’t have the need to honor all aspects of the mistreated, misunderstood world around us. Or, later on, an actor describes a single penguin that swims through all kinds of oceans, arctic to tropical. However, the penguin also swims under an oil slick and into a plastic bag. At that point, the storyteller walks away from the microphone and you think that the story is over. Ah yes, another animal trapped by our litter. However, he comes back to the microphone and tells us that the penguin frees himself and “makes it after all”. He tricks us. The piece’s purpose is not to make me feel guilty and because of that, it actually makes me listen to the message more. (In addition, all of this penguin imagery seems to be directly connected to the documentary the piece was inspired by, Encounters at the End of the World, in which a penguin marches in the wrong direction towards death. Here, however, they transformed it in a way that we, in a way, see ourselves in the penguin.)

As I learned more about Wunderbaum, this is all apparently their specialty. However, this is not to say that all of their pieces are alike. In 2010, they created a piece called Looking for Paul that had a performance at REDCAT in LA. It was about a woman’s desire for revenge towards artist Paul McCarthy and his sculpture titled “Santa Claus” that looks like a gnome with a giant buttplug . The sculpture sits in front of her home and is purchased with public monies. However, the piece is not as fluffy and lighthearted as Songs; at one point of the piece, feces are smeared everywhere and people copulate with haystacks. Nevertheless, according to one reviewer, it is a “meta-theatrical experience that revels in its ambiguity and gleefully blurs the line between the real and theatrical artifice. It raises intelligent questions in an unexpected way and wisely never takes itself too seriously” – basically everything I feel about this Songs. Knowing this, I was able to conclude that this company is no one-trick pony; they deal with varied subject matter and create work that suits it.

Later on in Songs, we return to the stories of the characters we encountered earlier, except now they are no longer children. The young girl who figure skated is now searching for her partner and sings a song called “Silent John” where she laments her lost love. Somehow, adulthood has made her lover lose his voice. How have we lost our voices as adults? The performance artist girl comes back as well. In her vignette, she finally succeeds in accomplishing her lifelong dream of flying, but then becomes saddened and frightened. Because she has achieved her dream she no longer knows what to do. She misses her Mom. Now she must make decisions. What is beyond our own personal dreams? When do we start taking responsibility for making decisions for ourselves? For others? For our world?

Finally, the piece finishes with two songs. The lyrics for the first song are “I would like to grow up, thank you” as the stage is transformed to look like the actors are “under the ice”. Jellyfish-like objects are suspended in the air. An actor is a tight, little Speedo is swimming. Through this final image of the play, I made the connection that the earth is a child that would like to continue to grow as well. Then, the piece closes with the song it began with.  By the end of the piece, “We bring mountains to the snow” has become a perturbing idea: when did we start trying to control the earth in such a way?

As the piece says in the beginning, it is not that we have “miserable lives”, but we must allow ourselves to question “how it could be otherwise”. Songs at the End of the World asks that question in a fun, engaging and therefore very effective way.

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