By Steve Nardoni
NYU Skirball, the theater venue of New York University, has a declared mission to “present work that inspires, yet frustrates, confirms yet confounds, entertains, yet upends.” They have succeeded with The Builders Association’s Elements of Oz which employs devices delving into both the L. Frank Baum book and the film The Wizard of Oz that combine the elements of live theater, 1930’s film production, and current technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR). Given the relevance of the iconic Wizard of Oz to gay identification, it was a nice way to wrap up the year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
The AR is presented through an app for the audience’s smart phones. During the show the app instructs the audience to Look Up through their phones which provide access to additional images, and videos like the tornado and rain, the poppy field with snow, and flying monkeys.
I, of course, could not get my cell phone to work the app for the AR, so the kind Mitch sitting next to me shared his phone. I find out after the show that Mitch, replete with green hair and polished nails, is from Kansas (yes, Kansas!!!), and is a former navy man who is attending the New School majoring in video projection production. He blithely informed me that there is “no place like New York.” Talk about emphasizing a theme.
The stage has two large video screens and remnants of film production equipment which are also used to spin, explain, debunk, praise, and mystify the iconicity of both the book and 1939 film. A narrator (Moe Angelos) uses a selfie stick to project herself on the screen behind her to explain a lot of the background stuff of both venues: The Great Depression and sinister financial theories; the making of the film by a total of five directors (the last, Victor Fleming, goes on to salvage Gone with the Wind); the unsafe production conditions with burned stand-ins, asbestos snow, and falling monkeys that should have been flying; the theme that there is a “hymn to Elsewhere and that Home is what we make it.” This last thought is based on insights of the film from Salman Rushdie. Also, the cast recreates a 1959 interview by Mike Wallace (Sean Donovan) of Ayn Rand (Hannah Heller) where the video camera projects Ayn on the screen as a smokey, cackling, capitalist Wicked Witch.
Interspersed throughout the show are live recreations of scenes from the film where Moe, Sean, and Hannah rotate into the Dorothy role (Dorothy played by the mustachioed Sean is a hoot). The most interesting setup was the scene where Dorothy emerges from drab Kansas into Technicolor Oz. Since the scene was being filmed in color, Dorothy initially had to be in her gingham dress colored in the drab sepia and made-up in that same color. So it was Judy Garland’s double who walks to the door and opens it. She steps out of the way of the shot and the camera glides through the door, followed by Judy Garland, revealed in her bright blue dress. A humorous part of the videos of Dorothy in the ruby slippers was that the shoes were consistently shown to be too large! What also really floored me was that it was only Moe, Sean and Hannah playing all the parts: I thought there was a large cast jumping into the scenes: these actors did such a superb job filling the various roles.
The evening I saw this performance the 1939 film was being shown on television. So me, a single-media Baby Boomer, got to understand that there are multiple ways in which to re-enjoy anything. And what better source than to explore the pleasures and treasures of The Wizard of Oz.
Photos: Gennadi Novash
Presented on December 7th and 8th 2019 at NYU Skirball Centeer for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, New York, NY 10012 by The Builders Association.
Directed by Marianne Weems. Performed by Moe Angelos, Sean Donovan, and Hannah Heller.