'Passengers' at A.C.T. - the circus train pulls into town

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Monday October 3, 2022
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Kaisha Desselines-Wright and Dina Sok in 'Passengers' <br>(photo: Kevin Berne)
Kaisha Desselines-Wright and Dina Sok in 'Passengers'
(photo: Kevin Berne)

Having recently seen "Bullet Train," the diverting new Brad Pitt action film, I was primed to see how the Montreal-based nouveau cirque troupe 7 Fingers would spin a similar setting on stage. Their acrobatic spectacular, "Passengers," now chugging into its final weekend at A.C.T.'s newly rechristened Toni Rembe Theatre (formerly the Geary). It had more movie to it than I'd prefer.

Establishing and reiterating the show's overarching theme, the cast of nine performers recurrently arrange themselves in seated rows. Shifting their bodies in coordinated precision, they ingeniously summon up a train in motion. Subtle, perfectly calibrated movements (a bend of the wrist, a lift of the knee, a tiny slide of the shoulders) create a soul-tickling effect: The performers' muscle memory is projected onto the audience. We don't just see them, we feel them, our imaginations all aboard.

Upstage though, projected onto a backdrop, is recorded footage of railway scenes: Electric poles, tunnels, landscapes rapidly rushing past. It's sleek and expensive looking, but it uncouples the audience and performers a bit, diminishing the show's somatic magic —a uniquely alive theatrical magic— by leaning into cinematic literalism.

While these interstitial scenes reinforce the show's train motif, the main freight of "Passengers" is its cast members' wonderful specialty performances, among them Méliejade Tremblay-Bouchard's tornado-like hula hoop routine, Dina Sok's low-slung tightrope walk, Santiago Rivera's witty juggling and Andrew Sumner and Beito Freitas' breathtaking finale, a combination of hand-to-trap and Russian cradle routines.

The heavy-handed projections —We get it! Train travel!— are even more detrimental during some of these featured acts. I wanted to support the cast members' concentration with my own; for my mind to grip, stretch and strain with their bodies. But the video often spreads one's focus across the full height and width of the backing screen rather than directing it to the athletic power and artistic elegance of the performers downstage.

Shana Carroll, the San Francisco native and 7 Fingers founder, who conceived, directed and choreographed "Passengers," aims to blur the boundaries between acrobatics, modern dance and theater. And in so many ways she succeeds. She has coaxed her cast members to be not just acrobats, but actors, their interactions evoking sensations of departure and arrival, reunion and separation, adventure and anxiety. Her integration of their movement with Colin Gagnés enveloping musical score is nearly perfect.

But the almost non-stop underpinning of film behind this hybrid of live performance styles feels like a step too far. In addition to heavy-handedly re-presenting information we've already absorbed, it flattens the cast against the two-dimensionality of the screen, an effect exacerbated by the rectangular frame of the proscenium stage. It's for good reason that acrobatics are often performed in-the-round or on thrust stages, with the audience on three sides (For an exhilarating example, check out 7 Fingers' "Dear San Francisco," in open-ended residence at Club Fugazi in North Beach).

At its best, 7 Fingers' work is acro-poetic, using bodies in motion to express emotions and abstract notions. As performers trust one another to catch them and keep them aloft, the creators trust audiences to do the same with themes and motifs. At "Passengers" though, I felt a little untrusted, a bit overtrained.

'Passengers,' through October 9. $25-$110. A.C.T.'s Toni Rembe Theatre. 415 Geary St. (415) 749-2228. www.act-sf.org

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