'Sun & Sea' at Philly Fringe: An indoor beach opera with 45 tons of sand and climate change message
David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 09/27, 2021
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Hard to describe but easy on the senses, Sun & Sea is an art installation/performance piece that’s arriving in Philadelphia as an international niche phenomenon.
Created in Lithuania and awarded the top prize at the Venice Biennale, the hour-long performance piece — requiring some 30 tons of sand and a cast of beach-clad singer-actors — just wrapped up a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that was sold out before it began. Three more U.S. tour stops include the Philadelphia Fringe Festival Sept. 30-Oct. 3, with theatrical requirements that will have Center City denizens consulting Google Maps to find The Budd (where steel automobile bodies were once manufactured) at 3431 Fox St. in Hunting Park.
The piece can be pigeonholed as a climate change opera since the beach setting has a cross section of society singing in 24 songs and choruses that reflect lives adapting to increasingly ominous climate circumstances. No shaming or blaming. Just everyday people warning each other about toxic shrimp, fatal undertows, and brain tumors — with music too direct and vernacular to be operatic.
“It touches on the climate crisis,” said Vaiva Grainytė, who wrote the song lyrics and is one of three equal collaborators in the piece, “but is not scientific. ... It started from a visual image of a beach. We started to brainstorm a lot about what that visual could mean, having in mind this human fragility and planet fragility — both bodies but on different scales. ...”
To that end, the beach scene of couples, loners, children, and a dog with towels and swimwear is meticulously composed “like a painting, in quiet calm pastel tones,” she said. No one element stands out. Lighting permits no shadows. The audience looks down from a surrounding gallery in performances that dovetail into one another in a continuous loop — no bows or ovations — suggesting that you’re eavesdropping on their lives.
More than most performance pieces, what Sun & Sea communicates is in the mind of the beholder. Having germinated over years in Lithuania, the piece now hits even closer to home than when seen in Venice, Italy, in 2019. None of the creators claim to have visionary powers. “We just did our best to make the piece,” said composer Lina Lapelytė.
And now? “We have a feeling that it’s important that we do this,” she said.
With a placid offhanded manner and actors who seem to live their roles, the overall impression can be deceptively amorphous. Or alluringly open-ended. It’s a piece that you absorb more than you observe. As the local producer Richard Torchia put it, “I like things that make language useless.”
He is director of Arcadia Exhibitions, which is presenting Sun & Sea under the Fringe umbrella, and was faced with reproducing a commonplace beach amid uncommon circumstances. For the now-closed New York run, the Brooklyn Academy crew, which is used to the steep theatrical demands of productions by Pina Bausch, discovered that sand isn’t permitted to be mined from the Jersey Shore (which is eroding amid climate change). And though Brooklyn only needed 21 tons for its highly flexible Fisher space, the sand was the largest quantity of any one material required by any production.
Venue options in Philadelphia were more unorthodox. The Philadelphia Navy Yard was one possibility, though FringeArts president and producing director Nick Stuccio knew about The Budd, named for the innovative transportation manufacturer Edward G. Budd (1870-1946) and offering 2,560 square feet of space.
A spokesperson for the production said 45 tons of sand is being brought to The Budd from a sandpit in New Jersey. The sand will remain on The Budd property and used as “fill.”
Arcadia University, a liberal arts school in Glenside, might seem like an unlikely partner with FringeArts, though Torchia was excited about the piece when he first read about it and was actually one of the nonsinging beachgoers in a Norwegian incarnation of the piece. Arcadia Exhibitions also has a history with the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, which awarded a $360,000 grant for the production.
The piece’s philosophical bent, says Torchia, lands sympathetically at Arcadia. “In so many instances, the hubris of humankind is put on the spotlight [in Sun & Sea],” he says. “They talk about never having seen the ocean with so many colors, about how algae has an interesting color of green, but don’t understand what the implications are.”
Local parallels will be unavoidable. In addition to the core cast of 13 singer-actors, the beach is filled out by local “extras” who are meant to look like the place that they’re from. Yes, some stage specifications are so strict that Torchia had his sand analyzed at the University of Pennsylvania to make sure the grains were the right size. But in a future tour stop in Iceland, the sand is likely to be black. “We’ll be curious how that looks,” said Grainytė. “It’s not that we wish to control it but to let it go in a natural way. " The trio of creators is also known for a similar performance piece titled Have a Good Day! that explored the inner lives of supermarket cashiers in a meditation on consumption. And in some ways, Sun & Sea is a larger variation, depicting how humans consume the Earth — however benignly and casually in this beach setting.
Serious, businesslike, and unpretentious, the creators are all artists with significant cutting-edge reputations independent of each other. Lapelytė has been working on an installation titled Study of Slow “where I work with a group of tone-deaf singers,” she said. Director/designer Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė is known for her full-length documentary film essay titled Acid Forest and is working on a new piece contemplating the nature of beauty. Grainytė examines ideas about happiness in her upcoming, bilingual, cross-genre novel, Roses and Potatoes. With the acclaim of Sun & Sea, one can expect their individual projects to have greater visibility.
But once home in Lithuania, their own beach plans at the Baltic Sea are likely to be limited, if nonexistent. “Beach culture is not so good,” said. Barzdžiukaitė. “The season is short there and it’s super crowded.”
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