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One of 2011’s most delightful movie moments arrived an hour and a half into Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, when a projectionist hand-cranks a reel of Georges Méliès’ pioneering 1902 science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Scorcese’s gentle, PG-rated historical fantasy contains only about a minute’s worth of Méliès’ picture. That iconic shot of a cannon-fired space capsule embedding itself in the moon’s right eyeball is there, along with some brief scenes of Earthmen fleeing and fighting the lunar Celenites. It’s just enough for us to taste the imaginative reach of Méliès’ whimsy.
Many of the hundreds of films Méliès wrote and directed between 1896 and 1913 were little more than demo reels for visual effects he designed. A Trip to the Moon, the best remembered of his pictures, is more substantial, but still ran around 14 minutes shown at its original speed of 16 frames per second. Watching it at the modern standard of 24 frames per second brings the run time down to about 10 minutes. This weekend, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will debut in some theaters at 48 frames per second, the latest attempt to lure audiences back to movie houses with the promise of fantastical imagery so lifelike that even the 60-inch LCDs bolted to their living room walls and the “retina displays” on their iPads can’t match it—yet.
A discussion of modern movie spectacle might seem tangential to surveying the merits of Natsu Onoda Power’s new stage adaptation of A Trip to the Moon for the movement-based Synetic Theater. But anyone who saw Power’s brilliantly inventive production of Astro Boy, or The God of Comics at the Studio Theatre last winter knows she is out to induce the same benign shock and awe in audiences that Jackson and Spielberg and James Cameron are after, if by vastly less expensive tools: paper and markers, largely. A Trip to the Moon’s dynamic projected backdrops were animated by Jared Mezzocchi from Power’s freehand drawings. Repeating a trick from Astro Boy, several actors collaborate on a drawing, their different sections scaling perfectly despite their frenzied strokes. To recreate the famous eye-poke, one actor zooms in on another’s face with a camcorder while the cratered lunar surface is quickly rendered in whipped cream from a can.
In Astro Boy, Power’s mastery of such ingeniously low-tech illusions placed a layer of wow atop its melancholy exploration of how the doomsday shadow of two atomic bombs molded the worldview of an iconic cartoon’s creator. Power’s new show may yet achieve that depth of emotion, but this premiere staging feels tentative and unfinished. If A Trip to the Moon had sought to incorporate Méliès’ biography the way Astro Boy folded in Osamu Tezuka’s, it’d be…well, Hugo, basically. This show has the same agreeably reflexive quality as its precursor, but here Power relies on it too much: When the recorded narration mentions the toxic smokestacks atop a factory and the actors appear on the roof with cigars and cigarettes, that’s funny. When it says, “We are aware this narrative structure is confusing to some audiences, and we apologize,” it plays as an admission that Power hasn’t found connections strong enough to bind her titular source material to the two other “stories of lunar adventure” she’s paired it with to round out the evening.
One of them, “A Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” adapts a 10th century Japanese folk tale about a princess of the moon stranded for a time on Earth. The other, “Laika the Space Dog,” is a charming fable set on the streets of Moscow in which a dog tells one of her young pups about Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth, in 1957. (That much of the story is true.) Not until 2002 did the Russians reveal that Laika probably died from heat exposure within hours, not days, of her launch into space. That’s of less surprise than the unsentimental way in which the momma dog breaks the news about death.
“Did it hurt?” the pup asks her.
“Yes, I think it did,” her mom replies.
If the novelty of watching actors hustling about the stage barking and sniffing one another wears off before the segment ends, the unexpected candor about mortality gives the bit bite.
Though Synetic has handed over the keys to Power, many of its regulars remain in place: Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s driving, multivalent score, performed live from an electric piano stage right, gives the show a pulse, and the choreography is by Irina Tsikurishvili.
Incredibly for a Synetic show, the dancing is merely OK. It tells the story, but the strong, effortlessly fluid physicality that’s usually a hallmark of the troupe’s work is missing. You wonder if the actors were instructed to replicate the staccato movements of performers in a 110-year-old movie playing at 16 frames per second.