An Immersive and Educational Performance May 18, 2012
Occasional near-catastrophes are part of what makes live performance so engaging.
The Gurs Zyklus, the elegiac art installation/concert/history lesson/memorial appearing this weekend at On the Boards, begins with a processional of three women. On Thursday, opening night, the first few minutes of the piece took place in total silence. The women entered and explored some of the mysterious objects on stage. They noticed that it was raining (it wasn’t). They took out umbrellas to fend off the rain (that wasn’t there). They reacted to sounds (that we, the audience, couldn’t hear).
And then a disembodied voice from the back of the house: "We have to stop." Some critical connection to the fantastic stage machinery had been lost, and what was to have been an evening of acoustical wonders had been accidentally transformed into a silent ballet. Rinde Eckert, the director and narrator of the piece, took the stage and filled time, explaining some of the mechanics we would experience: the “fire organ” controlled by air, the player piano and its 88 solenoid switches, the water that would fall from the sky.
Connection re-established, the performers restarted - and magic ensued. Now, it rained. Mysterious sounds emanated from the various objects on stage. We understood why umbrellas were needed. And the intended performance emerged.
The Gurs Zyklus isn’t narrative-based theater, but it still tells a powerful story. Camp Gurs was an internment camp constructed by the French government in 1939. In the hands of the Vichy government, it was used to gather Jews and other undesirables prior to their being dispatched to more infamous camps. This performance had its genesis with Trimpin’s emotional reaction to having learned about the history of Gurs as a child, and how the Jewish population of his own home town had suddenly been removed to the camp. The automatic musical instruments he's invented and the sounds they produce are enough to transfix you, but on their own would do their work just as well in a museum. But add in Rinde Eckert’s halting description of the performance’s foundations, the extraordinary vocalizations he and the chorus of women produce through song and percussion, and Eckert's howling rage at the horrors that befell the victims of the Nazi era, and an immersive performance of acoustical wonders results. I heard sounds I’d never heard before, filled with emotional depth and weight - the weight of the historical horrors we heard described in words were made real by the haunting qualities of the music.
After the performance, we wandered the stage and Trimpin the acoustical architect held court, telling us a bit more about how the instruments worked - the computers behind the scenes, the castanets suspended in air. And due to the accidental malfunctions with which the evening had begun, it turned out to be a bracketing. First, this is how the evening will work. Now experience it as it works. And finally, this is how it worked. A lesson on the mechanics of Trimpin's art merged with the art itself. It was a rewarding evening.