Staging a mind-blowing multimedia whirlwind that is equal parts reimagined Kabuki theater, site-specific installation and brash protest performance art, British theater troupe 1927 brings to the Studio Theater (until July 1) The Animals and Children Took to the Streets: a visually lush and relevant tale of class warfare chronicling the successes and failures of civil unrest directed towards societal change. The cast of three is powerfully poignant and arresting, and even if one remains callous to the sympathetically presented plight of the 99% in a time of revolution and poverty, one cannot escape 1927′s haunting performances coupled with the genius and highly original visuals. (It is quite rare for this reviewer to truthfully state, “I have never ever seen anything like this!” but I freely admit it and urge you not to deny yourself the unbelievable experience.) The stage is set with plain white scrims hanging in different rectangular shapes across the stage, the panels containing several windows. Animated projections on the panels serve the actors not only as dynamic set dressings, but also differentiated characters, in addition to providing intelligent and interactive special effects, proving an incredibly successful marriage of the best of both worlds in live theater and motion pictures.
Perfectly correlating the unrest of Europe during WW 1 and 2 with the global uncertainty of the early 21st century, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is set in “The Bayou,” and although the projected building facades and environmental descriptors reference humid and swampy New Orleans, the cultural identity of their Bayou is firmly situated in early 20th century Russia. 1927‘s adoption of “The Bayou” as locational setting recalls one of America’s greatest recent social and humanitarian failures, early 20th century Russia providing an international equivalent of corruption and neglect resulting in despair. The story follows individuals on Red Herringbone Street as they wallow in their state of grinding poverty, filth, infestation and lack of control over their daily realities. Meanwhile, the children of Red Herringbone Street, played by projected animated silhouettes, form a protest group called The Pirates who stage violent demonstrations against the Bayou’s very obvious ills. A well-meaning woman shows up to save the tenement-dwelling children through a offering free art course, her naiveté amusingly but painfully exposed very quickly into her attempts at social betterment within the Bayou’s convoluted miasma of decay and unrest.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is sensational in it’s ability to conjoin disparate visual and technological elements to profound effect. For example, the production’s overall style is firmly rooted in the aesthetic of Russian avant-garde art and propaganda, especially borrowing the unusual typography of the Russian Constructivist, Italian Futurist and International Dada movements. In several instances, the actors and visuals even reenact famous works of art from this time period (notably Alexsandr Rodchenko’s poster Portrait of Lilya Brik of 1924, originally an advertisement for a bookstore, whose design became iconic and far-reaching across art and agitprop of the time.) Other visual and stylistic references include the aesthetic of Tim Burton, especially in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, Holocaust and war memoir films as well as the literature of Aldous Huxley and Franz Kafka, all through a treatment of Dostoyevskian nihilism. The projections take clues from early animated cartoons, including the first Disney short, 1929’s “Skeleton Dance” and 1961’s 101 Dalmatians among others.
Indicting contemporary culture by drawing very obvious comparisons to our current state of affairs with the political and social climate in early 20th century Europe, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets aligns the dawn of the industrial age with the dawn of the internet age, as individuals then and now struggle to reconcile their humanity with the oft changing technosphere coupled with the anxiety of war and terrorism, all the while asking themselves if one person can actually make a difference, and if so, which tools facilitate or harm positive change? With cyber-security a forefront topic in today’s news and internet and digital technology expanding exponentially, our brave new world is rife with insidious threats accompanying our broadening capacities towards innovation, progress and establishing a global community. The Animals and Children Took to the Streets accesses themes, visual tropes and existential questions that both a century ago and today speak to the see-saw of idealism vs. realism about whether change is possible through collective action, positing that history may not necessarily repeat itself, but it can sure look familiar.