Molded by the Flow is a show about water and work. As it begins, musicians tap mallets against tall glass jars and suspended silver goblets. Workers in coveralls move among wood crates stacked high against a blue screen, which flickers to life with a pale, fluid ripple. Visions of water are the pulse of this original multi-disciplinary performance and the culmination of a year-long collaboration between students and faculty in USM’s departments of Theatre, Art, and the School of Music. Led by acclaimed composer and professor Paul Dresher on an invited Libra Professorship (Dresher’s winning proposal sought to create a work “inspired by the dynamic interaction of Southern Maine’s spectacular natural environment” and “the area’s centuries-long history of human habitation and development”) along with USM faculty, the students collaboratively devised Molded's script, musical composition, and production design in this imaginatively staged miscellany of histories and impressions about water, through land and time.
The work’s narrative follows the loose arc of water from the mountains to the sea, paying homage to the parallel flows and falls of the state’s industries – lumber, mills, shipping. As the narrative progresses, action onstage shifts constantly with inventive stagecraft. Projections range from drawings and video of trees to lyrically abstracted rivers and ice. The chief physical set pieces are five wedge-shaped wooden units, painted with blackboard paint one side and set on wheels – they come together upright, roll apart, lay on their backs to form a raked platform, and are chalked in real-time by the acting ensemble (Luis del Valle, Emma Fitzgerald, Nate Genrich, Ben Holmquist, Ted Ingraham, Emma Jane Page, and Jessie Umu Vander). As workers describe Maine’s forest industries, actors draw mountains and rivers, projectionist Elizabeth Darragh sketches trees live on the screen, and the music ensemble at the foot of the stage (conducted by Cameron Prescott) repeats circular, busily upbeat phrases, like water burbling through a wheel.
Musically, Molded is especially rich and varied. In addition to an array of woodwinds (Amy Murphy, Lori Arsenault, Jordan Dube, and Hunter McCay), electric guitar (Anthony Braca), strings (Bryan Waring, Shannon Allen, and Arsenault), and percussion (Noah Franklin and Cassandra Snider), the ensemble has invented two large stringed instruments – one made of wooden crates and played horizontally, the other a tall tower strung vertically. Compositions are beautiful, and smartly aligned to the script’s themes. For a sequence on the steam engine, we hear repeated motor-like staccato phrases, aggressive percussion on sticks. With monologues about workmen’s morning rituals comes a warm dawn of woodwinds, plucked cello and violin. An actor’s monologue of childhood days in the surf is refrained as a jazz ballad on electric guitar, sung by a bluesy female vocalist (Saigelyn Green).
The script draws on historical sources and original material, from a chronology of floods to childhood anecdotes of the sea. Understandably, its breadth exceeds its depth: its meditations function as an affectionate, soft-focus, sometimes prosaic survey, and it sometimes strains a bit to pull together its narrative threads – as when, near the end, we arrive a little too neatly at talk of personal origins, with one character telling of being born in a war zone. And given the theme, it’s surprising that Molded doesn’t address industrial pollution, sea level rise, overfishing, or warming oceans. Ultimately, though, its varied voices do cohere around its through-line, sometimes with glints of poetry: “I think we’re the only ones here,” characters refrain, like a touchstone, just before the course moves on and they are no longer the only ones.
In its best moments, the show’s multiple disciplines synthesize in strange and delightful surprises: To conjure a glacier, an actor lies supine, projections flicker with ice melt, and the cellist blows into a six-pack of glass bottles. Sounds of squawky bowed strings and a bunch of wiggled walking canes become a flock of geese – another force in transit over water. In such unexpected leaps, Molded by the Flow succeeds in not just marrying its diverse disciplines but sometimes transcending their sum. Overall, the synthesis achieved is impressive, praising how something so protean as water has so definitively shaped us.
Molded by the Flow | Conceived by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert; Directed by Rinde Eckert; Musical Direction by Daniel Sonenberg | Produced at University of Southern Maine, Russell Hall, Gorham | Through April 29 | $15 | https://usm.maine.edu/theatre/molded-flow-poetic-visual-and-musical-narrative
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