(l to r) Heaven Phillips and Peter Jacobs in Xtravaganza
(Photo: Paula Court)
(l to r) Heaven Phillips and Peter Jacobs in Xtravaganza
(Photo: Paula Court)
Xtravaganza, the latest multi-media work from The Builders Association, is full of technical wizardry. Live actors are keyed into old movie footage, images are digitally manipulated so that they appear to "dance" to the rhythm of the music, and amplified sounds reverberate throughout the theater. In one sequence, a camera mounted above the stage records on-stage movements such as the untangling of a rope. The live action is not all that interesting in itself, but it is looped onto a video feed and multiplied and refracted into a kaleidoscopic montage.

Unfortunately, the technological components of the production tend to overwhelm the live performances: The actors fade into the background even when it seems they should be prominent. There are moments when this imbalance is cleverly referenced; in one scene, an actor commends the piano playing of a character named Dick (Peter Jacobs), and Dick responds: "That wasn't me. Napster."

The narrative arc of the show traces the rise and fall of four theatrical innovators of the late 19th-early 20th century: Loie Fuller, Busby Berkeley, Steele MacKaye, and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. Xtravaganza pays homage to these four artists, showing documentary footage of their work or recreating their ideas on stage. In one of the finest sequences of the show, a dancer dressed in a costume made of billowing white cloth performs one of Fuller's "electrical fairy" dances. The dancer's costume becomes a canvas for patterns of light projected onto the stage, her movements causing ripples in the stage picture. I'm uncertain how accurate this reenactment may or may not be, but it is a thrillingly theatrical moment nonetheless.

A story about two sisters who move to New York to make it in show biz provides a secondary narrative thread that is never integrated with the stories of the theatrical innovators. Utilizing dialogue drawn from 42nd Street and other sources, this subplot never fully comes to life; instead, it appears as an excuse to try out different special effects.

Several of the designers deserve special mention. Jennifer Tipton's lighting effectively captures the mood of each section of the performance. Dan Dobson's sound design combines house music, pre-recorded noises, and old-fashioned effects such as coconut shells banging together to recreate the clip-clop of horses' hooves. The video work by Peter Normann cleverly transforms the footage of live actors into compelling and somewhat abstract designs. Much of the design effort happens in front of the audience's eyes as technicians mix sounds and images at elaborate "DJ" or "VJ" stations located on either side of the stage.

However, despite the technical proficiency displayed in Xtravaganza, the show seems soulless, and director Marianne Weems is unable to unify all of the disparate production elements into a meaningful whole. Dialogue scenes are flatly delivered and there are no compelling human relationships formed between any of the characters. With the exception of the aforementioned "electrical fairy" dance, the choreography by David Neumann and Shelley Lasica is surprisingly uninventive and clumsily executed.

The Builder's Association gained a reputation for successfully employing high technology in a compellingly theatrical work with its 1998 show, Jet Lag. Disappointingly, Xtravaganza has lots of flash but little substance.