Resembling something from David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Jim Findlay’s set for Stephanie Fleischmann’s and Christina Campanella’s Red Fly/Blue Bottle teems with antique clocks, radios, microphones, analog tubes, light bulbs, television sets, chairs, record players and valises. All these items are meant to represent the passage or documentation of time. At the back of the stage, The Old Lady (Black-Eyed Susan) sits in something like a ham radio booth, examining insects through a microscope. She classifies them by genus and species, and marvels at their years of pupation. She attempts to recapture time by offering each, however insignificant it may be to others, a place. She recounts what Fleischmann has described elsewhere as the play’s “important threshold moments;” like a Pavlovian dog The Old Lady pairs events with stimuli such as the buzzing of a fly or the flicker of a lightning bug. With the refrain “another soul swallowed,” she documents peoples’ disappearances.
What exists of a plot is simple, though blurred, and mostly sung to the often eerie music of The Operator (Campanella), who employs old Acetone organs, accordions and toy pianos to achieve the sounds of a clandestine sideshow. A character called The Man (Chris Lee) leaves for a war and ultimately disappears. Such interruptions open giant existential holes in his life and that of his lover, Clarissa (Jesse Hawley), who may be a younger version of The Old Lady and who spends the rest of her life ruminating on those moments and their ripple effects. The explosion of a clock is a metaphor for the permanent separation of the two young lovers. The Old Lady later says the clock can be repaired, but it’s missing a spring which isn’t made anymore.
Clarissa obsessively tries to reconstruct time and understand its passage by assembling and re-assembling objects at her threshold moment and by repeatedly speak-singing their names as if she were reciting a language poem: “pin clover thread cufflink feather spoon spring pin clover thread cufflink feather spoon spring.” Like incantations, each action and recitation is imbued with potentially apocalyptic meaning.
The technical aspects of Red Fly/Blue Bottle are masterful and beautifully executed. Peter Norrman’s video and particularly Mirat Tal’s expert live video work anchor this piece in both the present and the past. There is an unbelievably great scene where The Man (Chris Lee) rides a train to his unknown destination. Scenery flashes by and he is being filmed and projected onto another screen, where we see him from another vantage point, in black and white, slowed down, on what appears to be vintage film stock. This ingenious device places him simultaneously in the present and the past. Like the Old Lady, marveling at how time changes organisms and swallows souls, The Man marvels at how time rips people from each other, leaving nothing but awe: “See my hand. It held hers.”
Despite its dazzling technological work and fascinatingly creepy music, Red Fly/Blue Bottle sometimes becomes tedious, falling victim to its own preciousness and fable. The themes occasionally become bloated, as what exists of the narrative doesn’t have enough meat to sustain it. Yet, the sheer technical brilliance of its creators saves the day.
The most powerful, and indeed, poignant part of the work is also the most accessible. Old photographic portraits of people, presumably all dead, flash in rapid-fire succession across the several video screens of various sizes that adorn the stage. Voices from all around soon call out names and nicknames, even the pet names of lovers, as the photos flash and the music builds.
It’s as if they’re calling out from a video cemetery of sorts, vying simply to say the name of the deceased, to fix the names in space and time, to affirm their existence. It’s the indescribable mystery of where time goes, fleeing with its possessions, that so obsesses Fleischmann and Campanella. It’s as elusive as a blip on a video monitor, a flash of a lightning bug—first here, now there—or a garbled radio message traveling from the past through space.
Red Fly/Blue Bottle is another in a recent spate of bold experimental pieces that largely eschew plot and linear narrative in favor of challenging theatrical devices that foreground aspects other than text. This production will greatly reward both the novice and the connoisseur of new downtown theater.