The same day as I saw Broadway’s biggest budget theatrical production (see Taymor’s Turn Off the Dark) I also saw a much much smaller piece of theatre much further down on broadway. Wild Blue, presented at Access Theatre by The Hyper Aware Theatre Company, tells the story of Steven Slater, a Jet Blue employee that made headlines last year by quitting his job in a very public manner; he evacuated by emergency slide after the plane had landed.
When I first entered the playing space I was a bit surprised. Other than the built risers and set, the theatre did not resemble much of a theatre. It was a large white room with windows covered by blinds; typical theatrical lights did not hang from the ceiling. Really the space just seemed like a sort of normal room converted into a performance area.
Upon entering the theatre I found myself “a passenger.” The tickets were boarding passes. Actors playing flight attendants were selling concessions and drinks to benefit the production, but an audience that seemed to largely know the cast (I went on closing night) the effect was slightly spoiled. As audience members called to their friends (not the the characters their friends were playing) in the show, the theatre magic of having the play begin upon entrance was diminished. It certainly set a casual atmosphere, but I still think the overall effect was disappointing as I entered a theatrical space that was only half-heartedly defining itself as a show right from the start. Once the actual scripted performance began though, the theatricality was on full force.
The first act tells the story of Slater before he pushes the button and leaps out of the plane. The set was truly exciting. The playing space, in this room-converted-to-theatre looking space was much deeper than it is wide. The staging – playing with the depth of space extensively – was beautifully done. Upon first glance it looked like a set built on a budget, but once it was really used by the actors it proved extensively functional and creative. In contrast to Spider-man where the budget showed and the thrill was in seeing the massive amounts of money utilized, here it was most exciting seeing the creative use of a board with two lights and a chair affixed turn into a car when those lights turned on and became headlights. It was basic theatre magic. Also unlike Spider-man, the set was fully used. Every set piece and prop was necessary and beneficial to the telling of the story. Perhaps the unspoken benefit of having a limited budget: theatre artists are forced to edit away the fluff because they can’t afford it.
The storytelling in the first act was exceptional. Breaking from the flight leading up to the incident to glimpses of Slater’s life before said flight, the play weaves a story that offers both serious and hilarious moments. We see the whole company breaks into song giving the pre-flight safety announcement, and soon after see an intimate scene between Slater and his wife as they discuss their intimacy issues. The performers ability to handle such switches in tone is remarkable, as the play pings quickly between comedic and dramatic moments. The ebb and flow of the tone is masterful. The first act allowed for a constant build of tension as the audience witnesses Slater’s life fall apart, while also giving the audience many chances to laugh and stay engaged. The act culminates in Slater’s wholly satisfying press of the emergency escape button as the ultimate release of this tension.
The second act presents some problems. The writers have built in Slater’s attempted escape in which he meets another famous airplane escapist, one who has been in hiding for years after stealing two-hundred thousand dollars and jumping from a plane. They muse about the meaning of being free from “the man” and society, and talk of the “wild blue” from which the play gets his name. Perhaps in an attempt to preserve the first act’s cut-scene style, the writers also include interjections from various college course lectures taught by a single actor playing many professors. These felt mostly extraneous, and held my attention only as I hoped they would become more significant than they ever did.
Personally, I might have been more satisfied had the play had a more fully realized finale in act one or no second act at all. After a major tension release through the button press in act one, the second act felt tacked on, and besides Slater all of the characters that were so wonderfully developed in the first act were abandoned for less interesting, less relatable characters in the second. Slater’s choice to leave the wild and return to people also presents a slightly troubling ending, especially as undercut by anyone who knows the truth of the story: the day of Slater’s slide escape he was arrested upon arrival to his home.
If Wild Blue has any future iterations, I believe the writers could take a cue from the set design: only include what is necessary. They have built themselves a really unique and creative first act, but tack on a second act with contrived themes and less interesting characters. If they are to keep the second act, it could benefit from the carry over of the characters of the first act – Slater’s return to society feels artificial when we haven’t seen any of the specific society he is returning to.
Overall though, I exited the theatre thoroughly entertained. It was a marathon day of theatre for me, seeing the show right after seeing Spider-man, but the juxtaposition of the two left me refreshed rather than exhausted. It is always nice to be reminded that theatre can be as creative and successful with thousands of dollars as it can be with millions and millions.
Cody Holliday Haefner
Columbia College ’12
Arts Initiative Student Associate