Los Angeles Theater Review: WHAT THE MOON SAW, OR “I ONLY APPEAR TO BE DEAD” (Son of Semele)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on September 14, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

A NEARLY MAGICAL EVENING

News reporters ask one passerby after another, “Where were you when the Moon fell?” Yet the Moon has not fallen. She perches on a white chiffon-covered platform, plunking out a minor-key refrain on her accordion and singing a plaintive tune that begs those below to recognize her. The shining Moon is constant, although citizens may fail to see her in the wake of disaster.

Stephanie Fleischmann’s self-consciously theatrical new work, What the Moon Saw, or “I Only Appear to be Dead,” aims to locate the constancies across time and to weave the dark hope of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales into the post-9/11 contemporary moment. The concept is entrancing, but unfortunately, Fleischmann’s multi-layered play fails to cohere. The world premiere production at Son of Semele verges on the magical, but ultimately flounders in post-apocalyptic detritus.

What the Moon Saw crosses five Hans Christian Anderson tales into the present; linked by the less-familiar fairy tale “What the Moon Saw,” Fleischmann adapts “The Little Mermaid,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Little Matchgirl,” and “The Snow Queen” to current-day Los Angeles and New York City. Entangled in these stories are the author Hans Christian Anderson (Brandon McCluskey), news reporters, firefighters, and even a chorus of ghouls (peddlers of memorabilia from the World Trade Center’s collapse).

Perhaps making the tragedy of 9/11 less literal would allow for more poetic connections across time to emerge; right now, however, the links across times and tales feel forced. While the desire to place at least one of the What the Moon Saw or “I Only Appear to be Dead” - Son of Semele – Los Angeles Theater Review by Sarah Taylor Ellisstories in Los Angeles for this West Coast premiere is understandable, the disunity of place only creates further rifts in the production.

Matthew McCray’s direction – coupled with Sarah Krainin’s set design, John Burton’s prop design, and Daniel Corral’s music and sound – often nears the poetic, mythical quality of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. Softly clinking candle jars memorialize victims and illuminate the enchanting toy theater set; playful text bubbles stand in for spoken dialogue; and the sands of time pour from firefighter boots suspended from the ceiling. Yet the direction and design are not quite clean enough to sustain such theatrical magic: the Little Mermaid’s cardboard cut-out fin is uncomfortably disjunct from her body; the What the Moon Saw or “I Only Appear to be Dead” - Son of Semele – Los Angeles Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisLittle Matchgirl’s visions – slides being switched out on an overhead projector – do not transcend the tecnique; songs are often lyrically flat and too literal.

What the Moon Saw strikes out into exciting territory conceptually, but its poetic aim currently exceeds its grasp. Although Son of Semele is to be commended for honoring the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with a new work, both the script and production need further honing. But perhaps this show (ahem) only appears to be dead; given more time to work out the bumpy spots, magical moments may well illuminate the way to a better-crafted theatrical tribute.

stellis @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Matthew McCray

What the Moon Saw, or “I Only Appear to be Dead”
scheduled to end on October 9
for tickets, visit http://www.sonofsemele.org/shows/moon.html

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