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Pull the Plug


January 10, 2007

Bright lights in the big city don't make a show.

Why do people in the U.S. bother attending fireworks displays? In the country that popularized the neon sign, gave birth to the Burning Man festival, and encourages its citizens to create spectacular Christmas light shows featuring 10-foot candy canes and LED-studded Santas in their own front yards, there seems little reason to stand in the cold with thousands of other people, waiting for hours to go "ooh" and "ahh" as a few glorified sparklers make a bruise of the night sky. Yet we're drawn to public displays of pyrotechnic prowess every year, like moths to a flame. The lights are, of course, very pretty. Making momentary sense of hostile darkness through primary colors and geometric forms, fireworks speak a primal language that everyone understands. But that's not enough for real drama.

If fireworks displays were just about luminescence, they would probably have gone out of fashion not long after the invention of the light bulb. It's the ancient dramatic concepts of ritual, climax, and release that help to keep them in style. Even the most modest smattering of pinwheels possesses an innate dramaturgy: The flashes and bangs build up through the course of an event, from a single, simple rocket to elaborate fantasias of explosion and noise. The final detonation gives way to a sort of catharsis, and we all go home feeling warm and satisfied.

Luma, a theatrical celebration of lighting effects, supposedly features a dramatic framework, though like infrared, it's invisible to the human eye. I didn't perceive any narrative structure while watching the show's phosphorescent collage blink and pulse from the stage, but — according to a recent Chronicle feature story — the production does have a story: It's about a "Lumen Being" (a sort of Everyman with green neon tubes for limbs), who, says the Chron, "goes through a full lifecycle, from creation to death, over the course of the show."

This was news to me. What happens over Luma's 1 1/2 hours, broadly, is this: The creative director, Marlin (a juggler and comedian by background, who drops his first name, Michael, when in showbiz mode), comes out dressed in tight-fitting black velvet pants and matching top. He proceeds to perform, for no apparent reason, a few fairly nondescript juggling tricks and stunts involving orange balls, hoops, and pieces of luminous green string known as "slingers." He cracks a few small, self-deprecating jokes. Then he goes away, leaving us wondering if we've wandered into the wrong theater.

When the houselights finally go down, we're faced, for the remainder of the show, with a series of brief, mostly unrelated, episodes, staged in the dark around various light sources, such as LEDs, chemical luminescence, neon, and incandescence. Black-clothed performers dance around in rough formation, wielding a variety of props in time to a soundtrack that includes circus, disco, and electronically enhanced classical music. The actors remain mostly invisible, allowing the balls, rings, ropes, geometric shapes, and oversized spongy fish to flash, pulsate, and glow. Every now and again, the aforementioned green stick man makes an appearance, weaving his way across the stage as mild comic relief. And that's about it.

Some of the individual effects in Luma are striking. There's something sweetly meditative about watching small blue balls bobbing about in the blackness, or giant white silk sails reflecting colorful, patterned stage lights. The underwater sequences involving bulbous fish, oysters, and octopuses are delightfully humorous. The cometlike trails created when performers twirl light saberÐesque batons around in the dark play pleasing psychedelic tricks on the retina.

The main problem — to return to my earlier theme — is that Luma lacks shape. The Lumen Being is meant to give the performance unity, but his appearance between scenes mostly serves as a repetitive, clunky ruse for transitioning from one light-filled tableau to the next. Now that I've read about the "lifecycle" story behind the show, it's possible to see the opening and closing sequences — in which wormlike green glow sticks traverse the stage in time with the soundtrack's assorted "blips" and "blops" before joining together to form the Being's limbs (at the start) or break apart to become worms again (at the end) — as about birth and death, respectively. But without benefit of hindsight, the worms' double appearance looks more like a minimal framing device.

It's not long before the endless parade of seemingly random staccato scenes becomes monotonous. On several occasions, I found myself yearning for the source material to be put to more effective use. Luma's exploration of light is mostly two-dimensional: The predictable choreography (revolving mostly around simple repetitions and sequences) works the height and breadth of the performance area, but infrequently plumbs its depth. Just after intermission, for instance, Marlin asks us all to take out our cellphones and hold them up in the dark. He cracks a joke about people waving cellphones in the air where once they waved cigarette lighters. Then the show continues and we put our devices away. The concept — which could have been interesting if taken further (a techno-inspired dance involving free-floating cellphone displays?) — fizzles out.

Lacking any real fireworks, Luma fails to ignite. That being said, a couple of hits on a bong before entering the theater might create sparks. At the very least, seeing the show high would make up for the absence of climax.



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