Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Liz Magic Laser's "Flight" in Times Square

Performance stills of Flight (2010–) on May 7, 2011, 8 pm performance, the eighth of the week's nine performances. Video: 16 Miles of String

Performance stills of Flight.It was previously performed at MoMA P.S.1. Photos: 16 Miles [more]

It was difficult to tell when it happened, but a few minutes after 8 pm on Saturday a performance of Liz Magic Laser's Flight (2010–) began on the iconic, red TKTS stairs in Times Square. Tour groups were climbing the steps, couples were posing for photographs, families were lounging, and people were waving off into the distance. After a few moments, you realized that those wavers — six of them — were really waving, flailing their arms from side to side, standing on the tips of their toes and letting loose. And then they stopped waving and started sprinting down the crowded steps, dodging the seated tourists. Viewers who had been handed a single-page "table of scenes" for Laser's piece by a Times Square public safety officer could consult it to learn that we were watching a scene from Battleship Potemkin (1925), the famous Odessa Steps sequence, in which czarist soldiers gun down civilians. The actors were running for their lives.

One very angry performer heads toward the stairs.

Twenty-two more classic film scenes, most involving epic chases, were staged over the following 30 minutes, including snippets of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Cinderella (1950), and Vertigo (1958). "I'm so sorry I dropped you. I had to save the Declaration," one man told a woman, as they enacted part of National Treasure (2004). "I would have done exactly the same to you," she replied, earning laughter from the audience. This took place low on the stairs, not far from where I was standing at the bottom, but other scenes took place far above the street, almost out of sight. A man strangled a woman at the top of the stairs. Another crept slowly up the far side, quietly stalking a woman at the top who was frantically dialing for help on her cell phone. One moment an actor would be screaming or falling in front of you; the next, he or she would be off in the distance. Terror and excitement came and went, growing rapidly and then receding just as quickly.

A fight on the top deck of the bleachers. Viewers watch as a woman is strangled.

For Laser fans, there were familiar figures among the cast, namely Liz Micek, Michael Wiener, and Max Woertendyke, who all appeared in the artist's chase (2010) video, which was shown at Derek Eller Gallery last year. That work had a theatrical foundation as well, being a contemporary version of Bertolt Brecht's 1926 play Man Equals Man that shot inside the ATM vestibules of various New York banks. It ran for almost two and a half hours, and many complained that it was too long, though that seems more Brecht's fault that Laser's. Regardless, Flight felt perfectly paced. Some people left the stairs during the show, no doubt moving on to other affairs (How were they supposed to know that a performance piece would break out during their evening in Times Square?), but others stuck it out, and most of them looked thrilled.

A tragedy unfolds.

When people did leave, Laser's trusty stage manager Boman Modine directed those waiting below up onto the stairs one or two at a time, leading them into the action as if he was orchestrating a delicate military operation. "You two, head halfway up to the far right," he whispered. Then, "I need one. One right there," pointing to a spot that would almost immediately after be the site of the next showdown. The public safety officers also looked excited, and one grinned wildly as he just barely dodged an actor dashing past him.

Looking south from the bottom of the steps as the action unfolds.

Laser had ripped a tiny hole in reality and then grafted on tiny slices of popular culture in its place. (The Shining (1980), The Fugitive (1993), and Titanic (1997)!) Delightfully, there was no clear censorship in this most public of places. A performer smoked a cigarette and others tossed off an occasional expletive, leading one mother to hastily cover her daughter's ears. Earmuffs! In other words, it looked in many ways like an ordinary day on the streets of New York, albeit one in which a young woman's screams for the police go unanswered and a man is stabbed in the neck in the middle of one of the city's most densely trafficked areas.

After about half an hour, every actor that I could see was sprawled out dead on the stairs. No one was moving. I consulted my table of scenes. "Is this really how Final Destination 4 ends?" I wondered. Finally a middle–aged man reached out and tapped one of the female performers on her shoulders. "Thank you!" she shouted happily, suddenly coming to life and leaping to her feet. "Are you a doctor?" Other members of the audience followed the man's lead, and within moments the whole cast was jaunting down the steps as the crowd applauded.