Entertainment » Theatre

Refuse the Hour

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Nov 13, 2017
Refuse the Hour
  (Source:John Hodgkiss)

The first thing that happens in "Refuse the Hour," is that a robot percussion section dangling over the stage and starts turning out heavy beats before one rogue drum eventually throws the whole thing off and it peters out into disharmony.

So less than a minute after the curtain rises we're left to wonder whether we've just seen the world's first robot band breaking up over creative differences. Actually, that sounds like it would make an awesome show in itself.

But this is just the opening bid of South African artist William Kentridge's beautifully baffling 2012 experimental chamber opera, which just did a two-day showcase in San Francisco before ducking south to UCLA later in the month.

Kentridge himself first manifests onstage talking about his the Greek myth of Perseus and his own childhood, his avuncular personality and mellow, rolling voice stimulating the primeval appeal of storytelling on a dark, winter-like night.

Kentridge, it seems, is obsessed with time. No, that's not quite right; he's obsessed with everyone else's obsession with it. Arguably every creative endeavor or great innovation is part of the human race's galloping effort to cope with time, at least as "Refuse the Hour" has it.

After all, that's what the hovering robot drums tried to do; keep time. And that's what they couldn't do in the end because everything breaks down sooner or later.

Soon we get the strange auditory spectacle of an opera singer (Ann Masina) projecting arias from the balcony while, onstage, a competing vocalist (Joanna Dudley) sings the same thing in reverse, as if catching the notes and firing them right back, like acoustical ping pong.

Kentridge's trademark animations and short films appear projected on the rear stage, cycles of behavior happening over and over again, reversing or looping but often changing and breaking down as the loop comes unraveled.

Kentridge ponders the speed of light, about the invention of photography and film, the power of the clock, and the primal desire to turn back time, to start over, to somehow be the past again.

Sometimes he talks in reverse, verbally rewinding to start the sentence again. But of course, this doesn't really turn back time. Just like playing the same loop of a film is not really playing the same loop of film, because while the film may be the same, time has passed, and after all, you never cross the same river twice.

"Refuse the Hour" sports some ramshackle automated instruments and puppets that look like what might happen if Leonardo da Vinci got drunk in the Wright brother's bike workshop one night, newsprint shadows that stalk their dancers, and the unmistakable impression that you're watching some Charlie Chaplin movie as remained by space aliens.

There's always too much going on onstage at once, with different beats and different rhythms -- music, dance, and the gyrations of a giant, crooked crucifix puppet -- competing for attention, maybe inviting the audience to consider which parts we're watching and which we're neglecting, which is the signal and which the noise.

You'd go insane yourself trying to swim upstream in Kentridge's methodical madness, but if you're willing to give in and go with its flow its hypnotic appeal emerges from the chaos.

Arguably the entire reason the program works at all is the skill and evocativeness of Johannesburg ballet dancer Dada Masilo, whose preternaturally liquid movements and almost disquietingly sensitive choreography holds "Refuse the Hour" together to the point that she's clearly the star over Kentridge himself.

On a stage full of bright and clever machinery that all keeps time, it's Masilo's movements that illustrate why we value time at all. To see things like this is what makes it worth letting our time eventually run out.

"Refuse the Hour" plays through November 11 at ACT's Geary Street Theater, 450 Geary Street, and then at UCLA's Center For the Performing Arts November 17-18. For tickets and information, visit Cap.UCLA.edu.

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