The Night Falls
The Night Falls
February 9–12, 2023
In the dark a music ensemble plays the buzzing sounds of the swamp: insect chirps, bird calls, and the small cries of other unidentifiable creatures reverberate throughout the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. A clarinet and a clear voice pierce the thick atmosphere as a painting comes into focus on a scrim. A small, gaudy stage appears decorated with the phases of the moon. It sits among old trailers and a dilapidated sign advertising “Florida’s Own Sirens.” The projector zooms in and this painted stage becomes larger and larger until it is big enough to frame three women in campy, tropical bird costumes.
On February 11, this winking introduction to the world premiere of BalletCollective’s The Night Falls, co-produced with PEAK Performances, is a promising setup, establishing a sense of place that is both dangerous and humorous. Pegged to an abandoned roadside attraction of the same name, this musical theater production boasts a book and lyrics from acclaimed fiction writer Karen Russell, music and lyrics from Ellis Ludwig-Leone (of the band San Fermin), and direction and choreography from New York City Ballet soloist and BalletCollective founder Troy Schumacher.
The women lip synch and bop like a sixties girl group in short feather skirts, sequin crop tops, and floppy beak caps designed by Karen Young. A trio of disembodied voices sings a dark lullaby promising release from the worries of the world.
Three sisters locked inside and no one found us
Florida fell to ruin all around us
Let your earthly cares dissolve in Florida
Like the land into the sea
Solid ground becomes the void
All is lost and there is nothing to be done
There’s no reason to remember
Things that have been lost forever
Rest with us
Will you come to us?
Forget with us
Will you come to us?
But we are not the only ones listening, curious about what these Sirens are offering. Jason Ardizzone-West’s set drops us into the bedroom of Felisberto, a teenager mourning the death of his boyfriend and first love. The three feathered Sirenette dancers are seamlessly replaced with three grizzled Siren singers in a rippling wave of cloth. Felisberto, danced by Amari Frazier, sleepwalks toward them. When he wakes, singer David Merino mirrors him on a platform upstage.
According to a staging note in the program, the divided space and the duplicate performers are meant to represent “two halves of a whole person.” Wrenched apart by the Sirens’ song, the dancer inhabits the action on earth while the singer floats in a metaphysical limbo above. This concept is intriguing at first, enabling a deeper look into Felisberto’s grief. In his first solo, Frazier’s big dynamic movements and the outsized emotions of adolescence are confined by the small dimensions of his bedroom and the suffocating sounds of his mother calling after him. As Merino sings of Felisberto’s first kiss and his heartbreak, I am drawn to the convergence of endings that seem to be a marker of Russell’s narrative territory: grappling with the end of innocence and the end of life amidst the end of civilization as we know it.
In a clever transformation, the neon-lit box above Felisberto’s bed, that I had previously assumed to signify a window, turns into a television. After a series of depressing news clips featuring violence and disaster, a commercial for The Night Falls comes into focus. The Sirenettes promise “megadeals on megameals” and Felisberto is sold.
Another eerie painting by Harold García V transforms the scrim, revealing the same image of an empty stage—this time in terrible decay—before dissolving into Ardizzone-West’s sharply cut background of dead trees. Unfortunately, we never fully land in this bizarre, dystopian dreamland in which anything could happen. The suspension of disbelief, so carefully crafted in the first sections, is suddenly lost with the addition of more characters.
When Felisberto arrives at The Night Falls grotto, an ensemble of fellow Sufferers greets him: a mother with a missing daughter, a python hunter with a change of heart, an acrobat whose backstory and tumbling passes are completely confounding, a fallen athletic champion, and a lonely musician. In a long series of solos, the Sufferers each tell their stories of woe in what feels like a rambling group therapy session. And while the dancers and singers all have moments of shining in Schumacher’s athletic, and at times explosive, movement—soaring split jumps that change directions mid-air, fast pirouettes, and big overhead lifts—and Ludwig-Leone’s catchy, swelling anthems, Felisberto’s pointed despair is subsumed by more generic expressions of grief and disappointment. Platitudes rise in place of specificity. Heads drop into hands to signify distress while voices lament. All too often the divided-self concept plays out like a music video, with dancers emoting to and interpreting very literal lyrics. The sound, lyrics, lighting, and dance steps promote a kind of consistency that bars the development of more complex emotions.
Meanwhile, the Sirens have been pushed offstage and appear as a ray of light at each interval of enchantment. It is then a foregone conclusion that, at the end of Act II, Felisberto will abandon the other Sufferers and dart offstage to wreck himself on their shore.
But like Odysseus, Felisberto ultimately resists their calls. In Act III, the Sufferers spin and undulate in circles, hands clasped together in a group effort to rescue Felisberto. As he teeters on top of the platform ready to jump, a wave of voices and full throttle unison dancing rises to a crescendo. The group beckons “don’t despair” over the Sirens’ call “all is despair” and in short order, he is climbing off the ledge.
The healing doesn’t end there. Felisberto isn’t content with simply saving himself. In an adagio, Frazier bends deep and sweeps his torso while Merino asks the Sirens about their past, wondering who they were before and how their hearts have been bruised. One by one, the Siren singers break free of their tethers. This catharsis initiates another reunion as the singers descend from their platform and embrace their twin dancers.
The Sirenette dancers emerge from this now larger crowd, dressed in colorful and cleaned-up versions of the Sirens’ old rags, and walk off into the dawn. We are left with an image of birds in flight as the ensemble of singers and dancers take turns catching one another.
The Night Falls inhabits a neighborhood adjacent to the forgotten theme park in Russell’s novel Swamplandia!. The three drowned sister Sirens start as a stage analog to the lost Bigtree siblings on the page, an ominous example of what could have happened had the Bigtree kids not been rescued at the end of the book. But the Bigtrees are rescued, and when they are reunited with each other after harrowing escapades, the happy ending is complicated by the dissonance of their traumas. In contrast, the Sirens’ journey traces a cleaner, broader, and more consonant arc, from watery grave to transcendence. Likewise, the Sufferers and Felisberto have their souls mended just as magically.
There is certainly something noble in choosing such a life-affirming ending as this. Every recent study showing the rise of teen depression and suicide is a reminder of how “don’t give up”—an actual lyric voiced by the Sufferers to bring Felisberto back—is an important and necessary message humanity needs right now. And yet, for all its hope and good intentions, making everyone whole again was a surprisingly easy and rather unsatisfying resolution.