Sounding Off: Verdensteatret’s Bridge Over Mud Sep 24, 2016

by Elissa Favero

There’s a 1929 painting by the American artist Arthur Dove that I’ve loved for a long time, though I’ve only ever seen it in reproduction. It’s called Fog Horns, and though you can read in it landscape and layers of atmosphere and distance, it is as much about sound as it is space, as Dove’s title signals. Concentric ovals suggest the way sound travels, starting loud and concentrated at a center and then softening as it moves out from its source, waves of sound over and overlapping waves of water. 

​I thought of Dove and his painting last night in the middle of Verdensteatret’s Bridge Over Mud at On the Boards as a tuba sounded off, stage left, the rim of its circular brass bell catching and reflecting the spotlight as projected black-and-white circles grew and shrank and morphed. Sound, here, distorting, transforming, drove shape; sound, here, drove movement, and instruments weren’t just tools to create auditory experience. In the deft hands of this Norwegian collective, noise had become visual and kinetic too. 

​There’s both a lot of noise and a lot of movement in Bridge Over Mud, and transit itself becomes a recurring theme, connecting us from one scene to the next, from moving images of crawling, looping taxis to actual motorized vehicles chugging slowly and then speedily along elevated tracks to a swarming, teaming, pulsing mass that migrates from right to left across a large projection screen. My mind, likewise, pulsed with association after association. In an hour-long performance, I was reminded of amoebas and protoplasm under a microscope; of Seattle’s permanently sited cranes that load and unload containers from ships and their graceful, provisionalcounterparts that are redrawing the city’s skyline; of Archigram, whose 1960’s paper cityscapes played with ideas of modularity and mobility; of Absolute Film and the geometric abstraction of Swedish artist Viking Eggeling’s 1924 Symphonie Diagonale; of the play between shadow and projection in the work of Verdensteatret’s South African contemporary, William Kentridge; and even of that clever eight-year old Kevin McCallister, who manages to keep the buglers at bay temporarily by putting his life-size Michael Jordan cardboard cutout on an electric train to simulate a holiday house party in Home Alone. My mind was working overtime, racing to keep up. 

​But though Bridge Over Mud moves you from one thing to the next in quick succession, there are also through lines. The biggest arc I traced was one of lighting. As I found a seat before the performance, two large spotlights made it easy to make out the rows of folding seats. “Pretty intense,” I heard someone behind me say about the glare that illuminated our space but kept the stage in front of us in shadow. In the last scene of the performance, though, stage lights brightened as the music’s pitch went up. What had been flaccid accumulations of pink on the floor grew to upright columns. We had seen glimpses before, but now Verdensteatret laid bare its structure and component parts for all to see. None of the magic diminished. No one was disappointed to see Oz behind the curtain. After applause and enthusiastic hoots, the audience crowded around to see what had been hidden behind that initial veil of darkness. 

Their exclamations of wonder and admiration traveled to me across the room.