Last night I was given the opportunity to head over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and take in the family show, A Billion Nights on Earth, at BAM’s Fishman space. I was interested in the production because I am a long time arts education person and love family theater, but also because the description said the production employed kabuki theater techniques. Unfortunately, the production was less magical than I hoped it would be, but provided some solid examples of ways to put the theatricality into theater.
The play is an original piece conceived by accomplished theater director/designer/ performer, Thaddeus Phillips, and designed by artist and musician, Steven Dufala. These two have a laundry list of experiences in the New York and have won countless awards. The story of A Billion Nights on Earth is about a young boy named Winslow, who’s father just wants him to go to bed. Winslow is having trouble sleeping, however, because he’s left his favorite bed-time pal, Whale, at the 81st St. train station. After going to the kitchen for a glass of milk, Winslow opens the refrigerator to discover a portal to another world where he and his father, who chases after Winslow, embark on a mission through snow, space, and the high seas on a quest to recover Whale.
The production design ambitiously meets the intriguing plot with a number of larger-than-life choices, utilizing inflatable animals, an oversized left-over Chinese food take-out box, and shadow puppetry. The set, much like some kabuki sets, is comprised of a series of sliding set pieces which enable Winslow’s entire house to move left and right with ease, as well as transform into various parts of the house. Additionally, huge swaths of fabric wielded by stagehands mutates the stage into arctic tundra, rolling waves, and outer space. The lighting creates a mysterious unity to the various places Winslow travels to, with his father in tow, and provides fun practical effects like the glow of a campfire or the light bulb in a rotating microwave. All of this is coupled with a soundtrack that plays a huge part in creating the emotional narrative of the piece.
Sounds pretty good, right? Well, in theory, yes, all of this sounds amazing. However, A Billion Nights on Earth is a probably best described as a series of fantastic ideas with nothing really holding them together and an execution that (accidentally) displays this particular theater’s limitations rather than showcasing the allure of its borrowed international stage techniques.
First and foremost, the narrative is woefully lacking. While the plot itself is intriguing, we never really get a sense of whose story the play is telling. At first it seems to be about Winslow’s quest to find his stuffed animal, but late in the play, the focus shifts, and it turns out to be a story about the father’s lost inspiration in his job as an architect. This would have been a wonderful reveal had the father’s character been established from the start to be a burnt-out builder but, narratively speaking, the father never really develops beyond the stereotypical Disney Channel doofus trying to keep up with his son’s youthful sense of adventure.
This lack also is indicative of a larger problem with the script which is that it just doesn’t provide enough dialogue to let the characters develop. Many times during the 55 minute piece, I watched the actors pantomime in earnest, trying to relay a message to each other (and the audience) as to what they were feeling and thinking. Why make this choice when you have established that words can be used?
Whatever the answer is, the result of this lack of dialogue made all the script’s heavy lifting be done by the play’s soundtrack. Here another problem arose. Have you ever listened to a song, been incredibly moved by it, and then had another person listen to it, only to find that they don’t relate to it in the same way? This is exactly what was at play with the soundtrack of A Billion Nights. While certain music choices did achieve a clear message, many of the music choices seemed like they wanted to tell me something, but I had no idea what that something was.
A further result of these illusive choices was that the rhythm of the whole piece was choppy. Scenes abruptly went to black and silent as the locations changed. While this suggested that each scene was a kind of vignette, meant to be taken on its own, the narrative worked against this idea, asking us to keep everything together as a developing whole.
I will say, in one of the play’s many descriptions, it suggests that A Billion Nights on Earth is meant to be a story open to interpretation, but with its middling narrative presence, I didn’t feel like I was free to make the story what I wanted it to be. Perhaps it would have been more effective in doing so if the production simply removed all the dialogue and let the sound do all the work?
Moving on to the staging, while I loved the ambitiousness of it, many of the choices left me puzzled due to their sheer impracticalness. Going back to the kabuki set design choices- I feel like the choice was made to use the style without taking into account why kabuki uses it. In other words, kabuki’s sliding set is used to create new scenes, but it is also used to make effortless transitions. The realities of using it on a stage not equipped for such feats of theatricality made the larger movements clunky and often the audience was left watching as stage hands manipulated specific pieces here, and tied ropes there, in order for the transition to occur. They say a second of stage transition is like a minute of real time for the audience- we were often left with “minutes” of time while transitions occurred. Also, the use of giant inflatable props could have been really moving, but because they took a good 30-60 seconds (at least) to inflate completely, audience members (and actors) were often left sitting there waiting for a half-inflated whale to finish filling up.
While waiting for the props to inflate, I wondered about the play’s limited use of shadow puppetry. Why not use shadow puppetry, which has the same ability of growing big and small in the matter of an instant, at places like these? Certain shadow puppetry traditions, such as Thailand’s Nang Yai, even employ giant puppets that do double duty as physical presence characters and shadow figures (if having an physical presence was the goal).
Another description of the piece, which was from a youtube video made by the Philadelphia company, FringeArts, where it debuted, talks about Thaddeus Phillips’ strength as a visual artist. From this perspective I understand why the giant inflatable animals were chosen. But I also wondered if Phillips’ fascination as an adult artist with the process of watching an inflating set piece outweighed the fact that kids have an incredibly short attention span. If I was getting impatient waiting for a ballon to inflate, or a set piece to change, I wondered how the kids (there were a few) in the audience were dealing with it.
These awkward transitions also wreaked havoc on play’s rhythm as well. There is so much that could have been going on while these things happened, but the choice to just let them happen, without giving us something else to look at, was a curious one.
I’m not sad I saw A Billion Nights on Earth. For all of the play’s faults, I can at least be glad that there are theater companies investing the kind of money it takes to make something as ambitious as this. In my experience, when it comes to family theater, the cheapest solution is usually the “right” solution and the result is a lot of amazing feats of theatrical wonder have to be left to the imagination of the audience. If nothing else, A Billion Nights makes a compelling case for how important it is for theater to harness the tools that can be found in theatrical traditions all over the world to make theater a unique and magical experience. It doesn’t have to just be the method. In fact, it probably should be less of living rooms and more of A Billion Nights on Earth.