Under a cloudless sky on Friday night, about 500 theatergoers made their way through Buffalo’s once-bustling industrial corridor and sat knee-to-knee on two sets of silver bleachers facing a towering grain elevator in Silo City.
A huge expanse of gravel lay between the spectators and the elevator, on either side of which groups of musket-toting soldiers in War of 1812 uniforms tended to crackling campfires. As dusk approached, the enormous concrete silos in front of the crowd slowly lit up like an old television with enormous digital projections while a droning soundtrack echoed off the buildings of the rusted-out industrial complex.
And at around 8:30 p.m., a disembodied voice informed the crowd that the show was about to begin. A woman dressed in a flowing white dress emerged from the shadows and walked slowly across the gravel, which was illuminated by two rows of extremely high-wattage lights on either side of the makeshift amphitheater.
What followed, across an hour and a half of visual and sonic theater in one of the more spectacular pre-built sets ever employed by a local theater company, was like a strange and fractured vision of Buffalo’s haunting history.
The theatrical experiment, called “Motion Picture,” was conceived and directed by Torn Space co-founder and artistic director Dan Shanahan with help from a gifted team of designers, a large cast of actors, dancers, musicians, war re-enactors and one excellent helicopter pilot.
Did I say helicopter pilot? I did.
Shanahan, known for bringing his peculiar brand of visually focused and sometimes impenetrable theater to nontraditional spaces around the city, has reached a new level of spectacle with this latest work. He has exploited every possible corner of this particular corner of Silo City, an artistic playground that has become ground zero for a new kind of site-specific art that is fast becoming one of Buffalo’s defining cultural products.
Like many of Shanahan’s original productions, whatever narrative exists has been covered up by layer upon layer of sound, video and light-based stagecraft. The story in “Motion Picture” ostensibly revolves around a soldier who goes off to war with memories of a girl he once loved echoing in his head. With this knowledge, it seems natural to view the semi-enclosed space at Silo City as the inside of this soldier’s mind, and indeed what plays out on the crunching gravel has the look and feel of a fevered dream that often drifts into nightmare territory.
We see two troupes of bagpipers carrying flags of opposing tribes, one depicting a horned animal and the other a coiled snake – motifs reflected in Brian Milbrand’s hallucinatory digital projections. Two sets of soldiers load their muskets and fire at each other without landing a shot for quite a while, sending clouds of gun smoke wafting over the crowd. At the far end of the complex, shirtless hooligans dance around a fire, climb the industrial structures and throw rocks at a towering wall, casting huge shadows on the grain elevator and sending sounds ricocheting all over Silo City.
On a catwalk sheathed in plastic and illuminated by blue lights, a group of dancing figures is occasionally visible. The reason for their presence is as murky as the plastic barrier that separates them from the rest of the action.
Meanwhile, our hero makes his way across the expanse, finally ascending a metal ladder at the middle of the structure below an open door, as if to crawl directly into a hole in history.
What it all means is, clearly, up for interpretation. The visceral effectiveness of some of his previous work is lacking here, by virtue of the venue’s size but also of the number of moving parts involved. But what Shanahan has achieved in “Motion Picture,” through his innovative use of the venue up to and including the airspace high above Silo City, is a series of indelible images that won’t soon leave the heads of theatergoers lucky enough to get a ticket.
His work, in this and other productions in spaces created for purposes other than theater, is to expand our conception of what the art form can be and the boundaries it must obey. Shanahan and his crew, through this brief and extraordinary achievement, demonstrate that boundaries are entirely imaginary.