Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The Geary Theater has been renamed the Toni Rembe Theater (thanks to an anonymous $35 million donation!), and you can book another journey there with American Conservatory Theater. This time you will remain in your seat, while the performers onstage head out on the road. Specifically, a railroad, for Passengers, thrilling the audience at the Rembe with amazing feats of acrobatics and dance, backed by layers of staging, lighting, and projected imagery (by Ana Cappelluto, Éric Champoux, and Johnny Ranger), is intended to suggest a trip on a train.
The cast–more accurately a troupe of performers, for what they accomplish requires the sort of profound trust (and rehearsal) that takes months if not years to develop–are stunningly skilled. You've likely seen some of these skills before–in shows like Cirque du Soleil or TV's "America's Got Talent"–but it's unlikely you've seen them done with greater artistry or joy. Considering the cast have arrived from locations around the globe, including Cambodia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Guatemala, Canada, Argentina, as well as the United States, it is a testimony to the power of theatre to bring people together.
There is only the barest hint of a "story" here. The show–conceived, directed, written and choreographed by Shana Carroll, who leads the artist collective The 7 Fingers–is ostensibly about travel. But unlike most journeys, which have a destination in mind and an itinerary to follow, Passengers takes a more relaxed sort of trip, one where you set out not really knowing where you will end up, preferring instead to let chance and opportunity guide your path. As one of the performers says about travel, "Sometimes it's not about going someplace new–it's about leaving someplace old."
Along the journey you will be treated by spectacular feats involving hula hoops, Chinese poles, tightropes, trapeze, aerial rings, aerial silks, and others. They will do amazing things with no equipment at all, flinging each other around the stage, diving over each other, rolling (in an impressive array of styles) across the stage like so many human tumbleweeds. Santiago Rivera Laugerud will amaze you, not only with his juggling (at one point, seven balls in the air!), but also with the smooth, flowing way in which he accomplishes his feats. In fact, "flow" might be the perfect word to describe the entire troupe, for there are no jerky movements or times where you feel transitions happening. Each body seems to move like quicksilver–and this is even more pronounced when they move as a troupe, the way one puddle of mercury will find another and another until you have a single, unified shimmer of silver.
Dina Sok is a skilled gymnast, but his intensity, focus and grace make even his most athletic moves feel like dance. The women of the company (Nella Niva, Méliejade Tremblay-Bouchard, Mandi Orozco, and Kaisha-Dessalines-Wright) exhibit moves with as much strength and power as any of the men.
As thrilling as these circus skills are, I felt a little let down by the minimal (thankfully) instances of talking. Director Carroll (a Bay Area native who decamped to Montreal to join its circus scene after performing with the Pickle Family Circus) is an amazing innovator and choreographer, but she could have used a strong editor to tighten the narrative portions of Passengers. As it is, the spoken word elements (unlike those in her other San Francisco show, Dear San Francisco, currently at Club Fugazi) lack focus, or even a true sense of intent. Though physics fascinates me, I feel the entire segment on relativity (which Einstein explains in part using a train analogy) could have been cut. For that matter, I would have been fine if no one had spoken a word at all and simply let the cast's stunning physical skills speak for themselves.
Passengers runs through October 9, 2022, at American Conservatory Theater's Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets (ranging from $25-$110) and more information are available at www.act-sf.org.