Into the Strata

Inspired by the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Digging in the Dark is theater troupe Capacitor's attempt to represent the earth's shifting levels through the shifting of human bodies. Under the inspired direction of Jodi Lomask, this dazzling mix of dance, performance art, acrobatics, and clowning takes us on a high-flying trip to the center of the earth and back. On the bare stage of the cavernous American Theater of Actors, with a 25-foot projection screen as a backdrop, the first image is of a man suspended high in the air and diving downward, forcefully swimming as he plunges violently into the earth. The "Terra Itinerary" provided in the program carefully describes a journey through 13 scenes/layers of earth, including the crust, lithosphere, mantle, and core.

Lomask's choreography and design spring believably from a text crammed with geological terms. Bending and folding, colliding and diverging, her performers embody the text and transform it into something wondrous, something human. Although Capacitor has undertaken metaphysical projects like this before (including Within Outer Spaces, a comparison of heavenly bodies and human ones), this one is particularly notable in its fusing of the human with the natural. Within each of us, Digging in the Dark seems to suggest, there are multiple layers that shift both spectacularly and violently.

Six bold and dynamic young dancers (three men and three women) make up the versatile ensemble. Simulating the continental crust, they come to the stage one by one and begin to move together like cogs in a machine—the movement is at once frantic and fluid. As each performer steps out of the group with a haughty expression, the others quickly flip the offending dancer over and back into the mass, suggesting the fracturing of rock as it breaks apart.

Each layer of the earth gets detailed treatment, and the entire piece is underscored by a charged mix of dynamic music and stunning projections. The sounds range from natural (birds singing, thunder, and wind) to electronic (thumping bass and new age arrangements). The multicolored projections are especially effective when juxtaposed with the performers, who come together to mimic their kaleidoscopic shapes in the "Outer Core."

But the show's most breathtaking moment, the "Lithosphere/Magma Rising" section, does not rely heavily on special effects. As two slim sheets of crimson fabric unfurl from the ceiling to the floor, a young woman climbs them, wrapping herself within the cloth to create a complex pattern as she performs daring acrobatics midair. The "Inner Core/Orb" is also a highlight, as the six dancers crawl into a hollow orb suspended from the ceiling. The sphere spins as they move within, through, and around it, creating a captivating blend of object and bodies.

Two clown-like characters (in institutional-looking jackets bound by multiple belts) provide humorous entertainment in short scenes between the dance sections. The man juggles admirably while the woman, wearing an LED headpiece with huge megaphone-shaped cups extending from her ears, pokes fun at him while listening attentively to the ground. (The earpieces change colors based on the angle of her head, an impressive prop.)

While a few of Lomask's inventions feel a bit too lengthy at times, it's hard to complain when a production brims with such energetic staging and fierce, committed performances. Capacitor's Digging in the Dark is a visual treat as well as a fascinating study in aligning the movement of bodies with the movement of natural forces. Resonating from an earthquake that took place 100 years ago, this is a powerful aftershock.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post