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Inside a high-tech spin on Dorothy, Judy Garland, and more
Unlike every other show in town, when you get to your seat for Elements of Oz, step one is to turn your ringer on and the volume up. At this production from the Builders Association, which is running through December 18 at 3LD, your phone or tablet is a principal character. At any rate, it's a metaphor.
"For me, this is Oz – our phones." says director Marianne Weems. "That's the Technicolor door that we escape into. If you're standing in line or on the subway for 10 seconds, you have to escape into that, into Oz."
Elements of Oz offers a deep-dive into its title realm. A technologically enhanced amalgamation of oral history, YouTube fandom, literature, media and, obviously, the beloved characters and actors themselves, the piece digitally dissects the legacy of L. Frank Baum's timeless Oz novels. (It should be noted, though, that you can also enjoy the show without a device in your hand.)
With the assistance of smart phones and the company's customized app — and the explosive popularity of augmented reality — the production could become, for a contemporary audience, what Oz was for some moviegoers during the Great Depression: an escapist's dream. Throughout the performance, the audience is transported everywhere from Kansas to a field of poppies, with Dorothy alongside them. (The actors Moe Angelos, Sean Donovan, and Hannah Heller each don the checkered dress, and they also perform the rest of the characters).
"When we started working on this piece three years ago, augmented reality was just something a bunch of freaks were doing," Weems quips. Now, phones depict the twister soaring above the theatre as actors playing the original movie crew film Dorothy Gale clinging to her bed and spinning toward Munchkinland. Through their devices, the audience hears Munchkins giggling on cue, sees the Technicolor flora of Oz comes to life, and watches as flying monkeys soar across several screens.
Meanwhile, there are even more screens to watch, some of which show the classic film amongst a smattering of YouTube and news clips. Then there's the action that's happening on stage. For instance, when the witch tells the monkeys to fly, we see that moment get filmed with an actress taking on a rock star/semi-sexual persona. (James Gibbs and Moe Angelos created the script that brings all these elements together.)
"The audience is asked to divide their attention, or to share their attention, between several different spaces," Weems says. "That's meant to reflect a certain contemporary sensibility, which is that we're kind of fragmented and constantly dealing with at least two things, if not four or five."
The production also considers what The Wizard of Oz spawned. We're reminded of the term "Friend of Dorothy," which was popular slang for a gay man during World War II. We also hear about Judy Garland's struggle to escape a career-defining role and Salman Rushdie's love of the book and subsequent film. All of this underlines how many ways the culture has absorbed Baum's world.
"[This show] is meant to be a meditation on Oz," Weems says. "It's not messaging one thing. It's messaging that Oz kind of belongs to everyone and that there's so many interpretations of it and so many people are invested and so many people feel like they own a piece of it."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'The Elements of Oz.' Go here to browse our latest offers.
Follow Josh Austin at @TheJoshAust. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Gennadi Novash, courtesy of Peak Performances @Montclair State University. Top photo: Hannah Heller.