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Theater Review:

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s "LA LUNA MUDA" at Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts

BY LUCIA MAURO

If one were to sum up Lookkingglass Theatre Company’s "La Luna Muda" – a circus-theater piece set to original music – in one word, imaginative would probably be the first to come to mind. But like the equally benign term, "energetic," imaginative really does not say much about this breathy and lugubrious theatrical pondering over the moon’s gravitational pull.

The design team, director, composers, choreographer and multitalented artists – in association with The Actors Gymnasium -- have all sculpted a gorgeous metaphoric lunar landscape at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts. Audiences can certainly bask in the ethereal beauty of the playing space. But what if all those ooh-ah visuals amount to embarrassingly flat storytelling – or no real story at all? You’re left with some sweet eye candy that, oddly, leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

That’s the disappointment I experienced at "La Luna Muda." I was expecting a more cohesive and emotional work of art, considering the collaborative vision of a group of artists known for merging various elements of stagecraft into evocative stories that speak to the soul. But, as I watched this molasses-paced, 75-minute acrobatic play inspired by Italo Calvino’s engagingly quirky short fable, "The Distance of the Moon," I felt like I was at a Planetarium sky show. Except this sky show incorporated real actors into its scholarly exposition of the moon.

Audiences even got treated to such elementary-school scientific jargon as "The moon is a celestial body orbiting the earth;" and "The earth’s only satellite is the moon."

But viewers will realize they’re not in their sixth-grade science class anymore when semi-clownish archetypal characters begin yearning for each other –between balancing on tight ropes and spinning around hoops – in a rather contrived sexually heated aura of unrequited love. The original songs – including the painfully New Agey "Journey to the Moon" – by Kersnar and Laura Eason never rise above lightweight, saccharine pop ballads.

Calvino’s witty sense of irony within the realm of scientific dissection is absent in this loosely connected stage fable about five characters from another time sailing to the moon to gather its "milk." The premise is that the moon used to be so close to the earth that, once a month, people could reach the lunar surface by boat. Ultimately, the attraction of the moon and earth drove these bodies apart – an idea reflected in the story’s protagonists.

In Kersnar’s reimagining of the tale, these five individuals get entangled in the giddily romantic essence of this lunar wonder. Earth-bound narrator Gabriel (Lawrence E. DiStasi) finds that his amorous desires become more pronounced when he travels to the moon with four others. He is attracted to the sex-starved Captain’s Wife (Laura Eason) who, in turn, longs for Gabriel’s deaf cousin (Tony Hernandez), who has given his heart to the moon itself.

Meanwhile, the reason-obsessed Captain (David Catlin) babbles on about his scientific observations while turning a blind eye to his wife’s emotional needs. And the Captain’s young niece, Sierva Maria (Heidi Stillman playing yet another little girl), falls in love with Gabriel. When Gabriel and the Captain’s Wife get stranded on the moon, as the satellite abruptly pulls away from the earth, the narrator realizes that the object of his desire is unattainable. In the end, the Captain’s Wife remains on the moon; and Gabriel and Sierva Maria marry.

But all of this yearning grows unbearably precious. These people are blatant metaphors for the head versus the heart dichotomy of the human condition. And, because that’s so obvious, the characters have nowhere to go. They’re simply cardboard representations of the unfulfilled wife, the oblivious husband, etc. – not unlike commedia dell’arte in its most basic form.

Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi incorporates an impressive series of aerial acrobatics into the story – particularly Tony Hernandez’s tightrope walk above the audience’s heads and a dangerous ladder swing between Lawrence E. DiStasi and Eason. Yet, overall, the circus arts do not enhance the work’s themes, nor does the music – especially Stillman’s silly floating song, which requires her to sing such laughable lyrics as "My skin is alive; I am magnetized." The cast, in general, is reduced to faux-melodramatic posturing.

And that brings me to another key problem with the production. Interestingly, it also has to do with Brian Sidney Bembridge’s ingenious scenic design and Ben Spicer’s exquisitely vintage lighting. The vaudevillian-style prosceniums within prosceniums – and their gilt cornices – reminded me of a stage for the sort of overblown melodramas performed during the Civil War era – the same melodramas that paved the way for silent movies. Spicer’s seashell footlights underscore this sepia-toned idea. Bembridge’s brilliant evocation of the moon (and there’s actually more than one) gives the illusion that this celestial body is breaking through each cornice.

Yet the greatest irony is that, despite the play’s melodramatic trappings, the artists on stage appear as if in a trance. Their stares and sighs are empty of any grand passion or boldness. So they’ve inadvertently managed to paint another coat of veneer on a theatrical form already rooted in a kind of non-genuine emoting. Only here, the emoting is replaced with laconic pangs of discontent.

Too bad Lookingglass did not truly carry its vaudevillian placard idea of "Beginning," "End," "Beginning," well, full circle to more powerfully illuminate life’s cyclical forces.

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of "La Luna Muda" runs through March 10 at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $28.50-$33.50. Call 773-477-8088 or log onto www.lookingglasstheatre.org.

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