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Theater review: 'Under Polaris' at REDCAT

October 16, 2009 |  9:49 am


Sometimes a transcendently spectacular piece of theater can sound ridiculous and childish when you try to put it into words.

"Under Polaris" follows the trail of a female scientist who takes a seed containing the human genome to the North Pole, where she cavorts with a polar bear, musk ox and caribou to the sounds of experimental rock.

If the description is laughable, "Under Polaris" isn't. This multimedia, pseudo-rock opera (which runs at REDCAT through Sunday) contains a wealth of originality in its compact one-hour running time. Not all of its risks pay off, but a lot of them do. The result is both an alien creation that is never alienating and a challenging work that rewards your intellectual investment.

Created by the L.A.-based group Cloud Eye Control, the production uses video projection, shadow play and animation to evoke a fantasy arctic world. The nameless scientist (played by Anna Oxygen, who also composed most of the show's music) wanders around in a haze, singing rock arias as she communes with wildlife. Occasionally she interacts with the visual effects to create a fusion of the tangible and the digital.

Five musicians accompany the action, providing a near continuous live soundscape. Far from being acoustical wallpaper, the music is integral to the production. The rock score lifts the story into an operatic dimension, creating dramatic distance but emotional intimacy. This is one of the rare instances when an avant-garde theater production deserves its own soundtrack album release, and much of the credit goes to the fine musicians -- Radio Sloan, Rachel Carns, Jessica Catron and Dan Eaton.

"Under Polaris" grows more visually dazzling as it progresses. The video animation (created by Miwa Matreyek) is both clever and simple in the way it creates an entire snowy ecosystem using relatively modest means. Bringing it all together, director Chi-wang Yang keeps the wow moments coming in a steady rhythmic flow. The final image is a transcendent vision of pan-species communion that is equally hallucinogenic and utopian.

If the production has a weakness, it's in the story itself. The narrative is anemic, a mere hanger on which to string the visual effects. It's telling that the production seems to abandon the story about halfway through, shifting into a poetic gear in which mood and atmosphere take precedence over plot.

To the credit of the artistic team, "Under Polaris" maintains a wry sense of humor that dispels any hint of self-importance. This is an unclassifiable theatrical experience that stretches toward a higher consciousness while keeping its feet rooted in the snowy ground.

-- David Ng

"Under Polaris." REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday. Closes Sunday. $20. (213) 237-2800 or Running time: 1 hour.

Photo: A scene from "Under Polaris." Credit: Tamala Poljak