Paris sequence. Image from Flight by Vox Motus. Credit: Drew Farrell

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Centuries before the pandemic brought us the habit of scanning our neighbors for exposed mouths or nostrils, peeking at the people around us was part of attending the theater. Flight, an import from Glasgow-based company Vox Motus now playing at Studio Theatre, dispenses with that convention and many others, by placing each member of the audience in an individual cubicle with headphones. Less a traditional play than a narrative art installation, Flight compresses the longing, privation, abuse, terror, and desperate hope of the refugee experience into a mosaic of 230 discrete dioramas and illustrations. A mechanized carousel winds these picture boxes across your field of vision like an inverted cyclorama, synced to recorded dialogue and sound cues, over the course of 70 minutes. 

The combination of cinematic sound with impressionistic, multimedia, compact visuals gives the whole enterprise the insoluble feeling of a fractured memory or a haunting dream. It’s a smart way of cutting through the empathy fatigue endless news cycles covering displaced persons, refugee crises, and immigration reports create. 

The show, adapted from Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’ 2011 novel Hinterland, has only become more timely since its 2017 Edinburgh Festival debut; Afghanistan is the war zone Flight‘s two protagonists are fleeing. Aryan and Kabir are orphaned brothers, aged 14 and 8, battling their way northwest across a hostile Europe, reciting their itinerary like a mantra. One of the piece’s few consistent visual motifs depicts police and immigration officials as seagulls. Other threats, like sexual abuse—Kabir is assaulted by a man who employs the brothers as off-the-books laborers—are deemed too horrific to be visualized at all. 

The perspective of a child is incomprehensible to many adults, even when it hasn’t been clouded by sustained trauma, and Flight’s unusual format summons this sense of mystery without betraying the gravity of its subject. Put more simply, if this show were any more literal, linear, or, well, larger than it is, it might be too sad to bear. The tallest depictions of Aryan and Kabir stand only about 7 inches, and the physical crudity of the figures gives what is clearly a technologically savvy undertaking the appearance of something modest and handmade. 

And also of something intimate. Co-director Jamie Harrison previously devised illusions and magic effects for the West End/Broadway blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so he knows how to create spectacle. Flight is no less powerful: Instead of bowling you over, it invites you in.

Flight, directed by Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds and adapted from Caroline Brothers’ novel Hinterlands by Oliver Emanuel, runs through March 6 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org. $42–$52.