Devised piece envisions utopia

Taking place in the Mug from April 27-29, the play “Victory Over the Sun” was devised from the original Russian opera that details the chaos that accompanied the Russian Revolution. / Michael Chung

“It used to be warm here before we had fun,” echoed the narrator, or rather time traveler, at the conclusion of “Victory Over the Sun,” a devised play directed by Hallie Ayres ’18, held from April 27 to 29 in the Mug.

With tin foil covering one wall, a stack of clattering industrial paraphernalia blocking another and fairy lights casually hanging from the ceiling, the Mug had been transformed into a futuristic dungeon. Complemented by lights that formed swirling geometric patterns on the stage and trance-like music with odd beats permeating the space, the set created a nebulously psychedelic experience.

This Unbound production was an experimental show based on a 1913 Russian opera of the same name. Written just a few years prior to the Russian Revolution, the original piece illustrated a mounting dissent toward government regimes. The plot revolved around Futurists who envisioned that the eradication of rationality would lead to the creation of a much-desired utopia.

The sun was viewed as a symbol of logic and rationality that therefore needed to be destroyed. However, the futurists realized that, despite their success in this venture, they had failed to achieve a utopian state. This eventually lead to an intense sense of disillusionment.

“Victory Over the Sun” borrowed the plot, but almost none of the dialogue, from the original. One of the cast members, Evelyn Frick ’19 {Full Disclosure: Frick is the outgoing Humor & Satire Editor of The Miscellany News}, illuminated, “While our play is devised, we found a lot of inspiration in the original script which utilize[d] art theory and movements of the time to discuss industry, technology, the future and humanity.” These concepts were originally explored in a transrational language which, according to Ayres, “It was essentially poetic gibberish.”

Intensely sensory, “Victory Over the Sun” was acutely focused on movement, sound and vision in order to deliver its message., which adds to the uniqueness of the production. The beginning of the show involved movement players who reenacted human life cycles while the sun, personified by a dancing yellow figure, bobbed in the middle of the stage.

When the citizens killed the sun and later came to terms with what they had done, the hypnotizing music in the background built in tempo to combine with the characters’ increasingly manic screams and laughs that turned to cries. An emotive frenzy of sound was produced, leaving the audience completely overwhelmed.

Ruth Demree ’20, the narrator, explained, “The goal was to help you escape rationality through purposeful chaos.” The music was a key element in creating this. She continued, “We wanted a haze of ambient noise that was sort of unsettling.”

Frick further described the effect that the show would have on the audience: “A lot of the play won’t make sense in the way that we perceive logic; the characters are trying to achieve victory over the sun, but [the show] leaves the audience to question whether or not their goal is productive.”

The production managed to convey an overarching sense of aimlessness: Character’s movements seemed pained, while the sounds they made reflected an internal madness—a madness enhanced by their impractical hope that terminating the sun would solve all their problems. Dialogues like “I had fun!” repeated and reflected over and over by citizens after they killed the sun deepened the audience’s understanding of their insanity and delusions. Yet by ending the play with the powerful accusation, “It used to be warm here before you had fun,” the audience is forced to confront whether or not the absence of rationality really is desirable.

Ayres’ inspiration to bring this piece to Vassar sprouted from her semester abroad in Russia last semester, where she first studied this play. “I immediately found the costumes really interesting in the original—the people were all wearing geometry. To be honest, the impetus to do the play was to dress people up in geometric costumes,” laughed Ayres.

On a more serious note, regarding her interest in the show’s message, she added, “The play involved reconsidering what it means to have growing distaste for one’s government—a feeling that is very relatable to all of us in our current times.”

While many may have found the production to be enrapturing when seeing it performed today, this was not the case back then when it was first developed. Ayres continued, “The audience hated it in the 1900s. The play was not very highly regarded, and there was no footage of the original production, only of a few later performances. It was interesting to base a show off of something I had only read and never seen; it led to a creative disconnect between the text and the performance.”

The dialogue, actions and stage directions were written into the script collaboratively through creative exercises during rehearsals, in order to shape the characters based on how the cast conceptualized them. Frick talked about her own experience participating in this creative process: “Playing a character with an indiscernible personality or motivation of backstory has been a challenge, but I’ve loved creating this role.”

Ayres commented that the cast really shaped their own characters such that “the roles [were] the same as the original but the voices [were] different.” Demree further elucidated, “We wanted the characters to seem as though they were all together, united in their goal, yet interacting mostly with themselves, lost in their respective isolated worlds.”

Interestingly, the creative free-writing and thought exercises that the ensemble engaged in ended up being more vital to the final product than they had anticipated. One particular exercise simply involved writing sentences and then folding the paper over so that the next person didn’t see the sentence, and instead writes their own.

While the exercise was initially just meant to get the cast’s creative juices flowing, each person’s individual sentences ended up being used on the programs for the event. “In a way, everything we did became a part of the production.” “It was fascinating to see how the environment created something beyond what we intended, really,” observed Ayres.

Frick also describedthe creative process behind the production: “Using the moon in the beginning of the show, having actors recreate human life cycles, and covering the citizens with blankets were ideas we came up with in rehearsals. Other rehearsals were spent writing dialogue in any way that we saw fit. Obviously I can’t speak for the entire cast, but it seemed to me like everyone’s voices were heard and considered in the putting together of this show.”

Ayres mentioned in closing, “It was very rewarding to take a piece that is theoretically and artistically based and make it something that the cast and design team could remake and call as our own. We’re very proud of what we have created together.”



    • While I was unable to see the play, this great description belies an incredible performance! Congrats!

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