1000 Airplanes on the Roof

American Music Theater Festival

In this era of mega-Gesamtkunstwerk performance affairs, it’s rare to encounter works that actually deliver the new theatrical pleasures promised by the couplings of cross-genre collaboration and polymorphous mixed media. 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, a “science-fiction music-drama,” combined musical, dramatic, and scenic elements by its three collaborators—composer Philip Glass, playwright David Henry Hwang, and set designer Jerome Sirlin—in exemplary fashion. In practical terms, this hyphenate hybrid resembled a chamber opera, with its 90-minute length, limited character development, and constant musical accompaniment, although there was more spoken text here than would typically appear in a more traditional version of that form. Each creator presented a potent contribution in his singular trademark style, but the performance’s considerable power derived from the adroitly balanced interweaving of elements: each followed its own track, yet complemented and successfully interacted with the others.

Further, with its deliberately open-ended point of view, the piece found formal expression appropriate to its subject matter: the abduction of humans by aliens, a tale told in parablelike form. “M.,” an Everyman (or, in alternate performances, an Everywoman, since the role is double cast with male and female performers), has had an unusual experience: apparently abducted by a UFO, he has been returned to Earth and told to forget about the event. Rather than relate a conventional narrative, however, the text limns a portrait that is more an outline of a universal state of mind than a narrative about what happens to an individual character. The external recounting of anecdotes is only a framework for the true story: the conceptual anguish of someone who believes that he or she has been abducted—was it real or a hallucination? Hwang’s ambiguous point of view includes the viewer as a participant in this dilemma.

Sirlin’s slide projections were equally viewer-involving; the multiple, often overlapping images ranged from realistic, backdroplike decor—street scenes, New York City views, apartment interiors—to abstract patterns. They were projected on a multilevel stage set with scrims and wings, creating a fantasy slidescape of constantly shifting surroundings, and a visual echo of M.’s tentative grasp on “reality.”

The through-line statement was provided by Glass’ score, which demonstrates the expansive dramatic range of the composer’s constricted vocabulary, and also shows some new inflections, particularly in the intricate passages for winds and in the synthesized sound effects. At times meditative, at other moments almost terrifying, Glass’ chamber ensemble music (and staging—he was credited as the work’s director) contributed to a work more powerful than many of the recent giants of mixed-media collaboration.

John Howell