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One Hot Show

'Fire' Ignites Atheneum's Aetna Theater

By GREG MORAGO, Courant Staff Writer

April 29, 2008

First there was water. Then came air. Now, inevitably, fire.

As classical elements, they're simple, direct components. As themes for theatrical interpretation, they're full of limitless possibilities. Those flickers of the imagination bundled in color, sound and movement will be kindled when "Fire" opens Friday at the Aetna Theatre in Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The "theatrical fantasy," the third show in a series of local performances based on the elements, is the brainchild of artist Anne Cubberly and fashion designer Dan Blow, who were principal architects of 2005's "Drop" (a water fantasia) and 2006's "Whoosh!" (an air extravaganza). For this take on the most passionate element, Cubberly and Blow are joined by Katie Stevinson-Nollet, artistic director of Full Force Dance Theatre, who is directing and choreographing "Fire," as well as Tei Blow, who has composed all original music for the production.

Anyone who has seen "Drop" and/or "Whoosh!" knows that the collaborators aimed at a high awe factor in their previous efforts. "Fire" is no exception. Like the two shows before it, "Fire" is set in the mind of a young boy named Audie whose imagination takes him to worlds inhabited by nymphs, creatures and lost souls, according to the writers. This basic theme of Audie's flights of imagination have allowed the Aetna Theatre stage to be turned into an underwater lair for dancing sea creatures as well as a cloud-filled sky for the deliriously airborne. The meditations of "Fire" include naughty sparks, red-hot passion, volcanic power, hellish inferno and ash-filled rebirth.

The artistic team, which admits it revels in giving the audience a lot of oohs and aahs, divulged that "Fire" will contain some theatrical flourishes designed to impress, including a funeral pyre with a gigantic bird and a smoldering volcano. "A living, breathing volcano," Stevinson-Nollet said. "And," Cubberly quickly interjected, "there will be lava!"

"Fire," like the other works before it, was created with a charming air of infectious can-do spirit. Community theater isn't quite the word for it, although the talent is definitely home-grown and proud of it. The three theatrical efforts have benefited from enthusiastic support from the Hartford community, which gave each standing-room-only performance a party atmosphere and a group-hug feeling. The humor is high and local, in-the-know winks are standard.

"It's a community piece," Cubberly said. "We're part of the Wadsworth community and all the people we interact with. That's exciting."

Dan Blow said the artistic team has pushed itself this year to make "Fire" sizzling hot. There is almost no dialogue in the piece. Instead, the narrative relies on Stevinson-Nollet's choreography, Tei Blow's music, Cubberly's puppets, props and sets and Dan Blow's costumes to propel it from one blazing scene to the next. It's a bigger show, too, with dancers, puppeteers and main characters moving about the snug stage.

"We get more demanding each time," Dan Blow said. "We're asking a lot of ourselves and the people involved."

All the collaborators are stepping it up. Cubberly, known for her high-impact visuals, said the dancers and the music take her art to a new level. "It's magic. I can make a pretty mask but when a dancer puts it on and moves with it it's amazing," she said. "Then you add music and it blows your mind."

Stevinson-Nollet, who worked on "Drop" and is returning to "Fire," said working with creators Blow and Cubberly feels comfortable but there's more work to this piece because of the original choreography. "In some ways it's easier for me because I'm understanding the process," she said. "But in other ways it's a little more complicated because there's more bodies which means more choreography, more movement. This is a more dancerly show."

But still one that requires as much imagination from the audience as it does from the creators who did "Drop" without a drop of water and "Whoosh!" without a single gust of air. Fire, too, will be done without live flames.

"The audience may think they saw fire," Blow said with a smirk. "We don't know."

What the creators do know is that their musing on the elements will have new life, probably next year when they will no doubt tackle earthy soil.

"It depends," Blow said, "if we live through this one."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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