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Theatre in Review: Flight (Vox Motus/McKittrick Hotel)

Courtesy of Vox Motus

The McKittrick Hotel, home of the long-running immersive experience Sleep No More, has become a cabinet of theatrical curiosities. Last season, it offered The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a rather beguiling barroom entertainment that came with beer, whiskey, and sandwiches. Now on offer is Flight, a brief, forty-five-minute offering that is less a work of theatre than a throwback to the days of such proto-cinematic devices as the cyclorama and zoetrope. The product of the Scottish theatre company Vox Motus, it's a singular experience -- and it is designed to be experienced singly.

Flight is based on Hinterland, a novel by Caroline Brothers, which speaks to one of the most troubling issues of our time: the refugees, from the Middle East and Africa, who bet their lives on the chance to escape their circumstances and start over again in Europe. The story follows a pair of Afghan youths -- Aryan and his younger brother, Kabir -- as they navigate the long, arduous, and often-dangerous path from Kabul to London, where they hope to live with an uncle. They travel by foot, in the backs of trucks, and, occasionally, on trains. Their experiences are varied: They are made to do hard labor on a farm, and there is an instance of sexual abuse; they also are taken up by a trio of Irani-American girls who provide them with food and sneakers. They reach "the jungle," the refugee camp in Calais that stands in rebuke to a paralyzed Europe. In the end, only one brother will complete the journey.

Flight is a performance without a conventional stage or live actors. One is ushered into a dark room where, seated in front of a window, one dons a headset. A kind of carousel structure passes in front of one's eyes: One tableau after another briefly lights up, providing illustrations for the story of Aryan and Kabir. It's like gazing at storyboards or, perhaps, a graphic novel; each one offers a view from a different perspective: long shots, closeups, unusual angles. The images are consistently striking: a view from inside a truck, the door ajar, offering a glimpse of the outside world; a highway at night loaded with cars; a store stacked from floor to ceiling with colorful sneakers; a soup kitchen line that seems to stretch on forever. Some of the effects are calculatedly surreal: The immigration police are presented as seagulls in uniforms, cawing out their instructions.

It's an unusual and daring way of telling a story, and, in truth, it is more effective in conveying the sweep of the brothers' tale than in elucidating individual moments. And, at times, Flight seems uncertainly pitched somewhere between children's fiction and a harder, more documentary account. The realities of the refugee life are softened a bit by the overall elegiac tone; missing is a gut-level sense of dirt, physical struggle, extreme discomfort, and, at times, terror that surely is the lot of anyone trying to embark on this illegal and hazardous journey. (The rape of one brother is suggested but not shown explicitly.) Some of this may be due to the storytelling method, which militates against a certain level of gritty detail.

Still, Flight is often affecting, and it concludes on a haunting note, leaving open the question of whether the brothers' journey was worth the price. The tableaux, designed by Jamie Harrison and Rebecca Hamilton -- the latter leading a team of model makers -- are imaginatively wrought, and Simon Wilkinson's lighting, using the tiniest of instruments, is pleasingly precise. The sound designer, Mark Melville, has provided an effective mix that includes his own touching music as well as the voices of the acting ensemble and a battery of effects. Harrison and codirector Candice Edmunds clearly have run a tight ship.

If you have a theatre-loving young person in your household, I endorse Flight without reservation; the show also has something to offer novelty seekers. And, at a time when immigrants -- legal and otherwise -- are being demonized in certain sectors, this is a valuable and often powerful reminder that we are all in this together, and that a more just world is ours for the making, if we only we can summon the will to do so. -- David Barbour

(12 February 2018)

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