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February 20, 2019 | Theatre,

Man and The Machine

When Angels Fall meditates on humanity’s relationship to the mechanical and the resilience of the human spirit. The man vs. the machine motif is transformed into a multi-disciplinary performance, combining acrobatics, dance, clown and technical elements, bringing the uncertainty of our mechanized future into the body and onto to the stage.

As audiences, we are invited to question the connection between us and machinery, how we interact with it and how we exist outside of them. To investigate this further, we spoke to the folks over at Watch City Steampunk Festival, experts in marrying the mechanical with the whimsical, creating a symbiotic relationship between these often opposing ends. Melissa Honig and Kerey McKenna, both members of Watch City, define steampunk as a subgenre of science fiction, explaining, “if the high tech stories were ‘cyberpunk,’ then the Victorian-tinged stories must be ‘steampunk.’” Often referred to as a “retrofuture,” steampunk looks at the past with a futuristic lens. “What [did] people in the past think of the future?” Honig questions. “What if everything… had come true, and we lived in a world of fantastic airships and time machines?” When Angels Fall looks at the present with that same lens, and yet both allow us to see something maybe we wouldn’t otherwise recognize and muse on possible futures.

When asked what the relationship between machine and human conjures, Honig astutely points to the recent loss of the Opportunity Rover on Mars, with the outpouring of social media posts mourning a little robot on a planet far away. “Machines are things that we create, and sometimes we just regard them as tools to get a job done,” Honig remarks. “But also sometimes we truly see them as a extensions of ourselves, a substitute for what we wish we could do ourselves but cannot.” It becomes difficult to draw a hard line between “us and them” as a society we continue to build and improve tech all around us. “Depending on its use or misuses,” says McKenna, “a machine can be a manifestations of our virtues and our vices, tools of liberation or of subjugation, a friend or an enemy. Just like other people really.”

Raphaëlle Boitel’s inspirations for When Angels Fall also comment on the ever present push and pull between advancing machinery and our humanity. Hal, the anamorphic robot from 2001: A Space Odyssey is a perfect example of this relationship and how much to we actually resign to the powers of the technical in dire circumstances and the clear distinction continues to be blurred. “I do worry sometimes that in this day and age we’ve created machines that are very good at distracting us,” McKenna remarks. “We get wrapped up in a virtual machine world and ignore the actual people around us.” That fear is palpable especially in our daily life, but there is also a beauty in marrying what could easily become ostracized mechanics and the human experience. When Angels Fall manifests that with bodies in space, floating through the air yet interacting with these omnipotent cogs and gears. In steampunk, there is a whimsy of the Victorian age melded with the metallics. These combinations almost feel unnatural, but exist in our daily realities perhaps on a smaller scale; the ability to FaceTime someone across the globe, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s new virtual Hamlet, even organizing meet ups through completely digital means, such as Reddit, blogs, or Facebook groups.

Through communities akin to steampunk we can “remix real history with science fiction and a dose of whimsy,” says Honig. The do-it-yourself creativity also makes this exploration accessible. “Get some clothes from the thrift store, take an old brass candlestick apart, make up your costume, and invent the character that goes with it,” Honig explains. Similarly in When Angels Fall, Boitel wants every audience member to see themselves on stage, regardless if you have the skillset of a trained circus performer. Combining actors, technicians, acrobats and dancers, there is infinite possibility for who could be on stage. You see yourself in a way you maybe didn’t before. As Shakespeare famously said, theatre holds a mirror up to reality. Perhaps that reality is seen through Victorian costumes decked out in metallics or circus performers executing feats of modern day magic, but both are an avenue to use the fantastical to look at ourselves and the world around us.

Special thanks to Watch City Steampunk Festival for partnering with ArtsEmerson with When Angels Fall (NOW-FEB 24) at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

One response to “Man and The Machine”

  1. I saw when angels fall last night – extraordinary mix of media, skills, and messages.
    As a steampunk fan, I enjoyed the human-mechanical interplay but appreciate Blair Nodelman’s insights this morning connecting more of the dots.
    “Bodies in space, floating through air yet interacting with these omnipotent cogs and gears.”

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