Death and the Powers uses new performance techniques and an animated set, including a musical chandelier with dozens of Teflon strings that can be played by the performers. (Jill Steinberg)

What is it about live theater that is so compelling? Don’t answer that question, just indulge me while I ask it over and over again. It is the mystery of theater and what happens when you are there, in the flesh, that inspires, delights, excites, clarifies. I don’t really want to know why, I just want lots of it in my life.

And lately I have had lots. Not every performance hit the high notes for me, but there is always something that leaves a mark. I have a personal testimony of learning from mistakes as well as failure.

After seeing Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz last year and being completely overwhelmed by its brilliance (I wrote about it here), I was eager to see another ERS production. Their latest performance in Boston is another mining of the sensibilities of the 1920s. The Select (The Sun Also Rises), is an adaptation (as opposed to the Gatz’s verbatim recitation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) of the ennui-ridden, disaffected characters of Hemingway’s novel. Gatz it is not. But then nothing could be, that perfect marriage of a brilliant novel with a theatrical skin that had been lovingly wrought, smooth surfaced and flawless. Yes, The Select has the theatrical staging that is becoming signatory for ERS—streamlined but highly flexible, fluid and yet sharp, clever but not too much so. But that elemental seduction that I love, where the story and the characters cross over and become a part of your internal landscape—that didn’t happen for me with this production. I watched for the moments that worked well theatrically, but it wasn’t an immersive experience.

Neither was Prometheus Bound, ART’s latest production in their alternative Oberon space. It is high energy, with a musical score that is accessible and tuneful, theatrics that are full gestured and high gloss (in a fun way), and the audience participates by being herded around on the performance floor. The subject matter is serious—abuse of power, betrayal, the evil of tyranny, torture—but a rock opera approach can only take you so far into that deeply sobering set of issues. But a spirited and full-bodied experience even so.

Boston has been abuzz with the premiere of Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera. The project belongs to MIT professor, composer and inventor Tod Machover (who was a gifted cellist when I knew him as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz) but Machover aligned himself with a stellar cast of mostly Boston-based collaborators: a libretto by Robert Pinsky, directed by ART’s Diane Paulus, production design by Alex McDowell and conducted by BMOP’s (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) Gil Rose.

The story and set up sounded compelling to me: Robots play out their version of a passion play for digital entities in the future whose ancestral human creators have since fled. The story is full of concepts that are incomprehensible to these digital beings, like death and suffering. As the robots take on these human roles and play out the drama, provocative themes and characters are introduced; a billionaire who wants to skip out on death and just move his essence into a digital form (referred to as The System and functions as a kind of fully ambient presence that lives in the walls); a disabled assistant whose functionality has been saved by technology; the wife left behind who longs for the body as well as the essence of her husband; and the dutiful Cordelia-like daughter who holds a compass of human consciousness for all the characters. When I read about the opera, I imagined that this could be full of the metaphysical explorations that were so moving in earlier works by Robert Wilson’s works (Einstein on the Beach, the CIVIL warS) and Philip Glass (his Portrait Trilogy—Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten).

Musically the performance was masterful. Machover’s blending of the electronic and the instrumental was richly textured and lush. The orchestra sounded spectacular under Gil Rose’s direction. But the libretto, offered up in superscript, was mundane and uninspiring, as small in stature as the music was big. The hopes for a poetic provocation were undelivered. I like the word my partner Dave used to describe its overall tone: indelicate.

While the technical advances employed have been talked about a lot (Machover heads up the Opera of the Future group at MIT), those techniques could not –and should not—shore up the sagging in other critical areas. Once again I was glad I was there, but I learned more from what didn’t work than what did. Which isn’t nothing.

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