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Sun & Sea won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, and was easier to find in Venice than it was in North Philly. After 45 minutes of circling the area near the venue in the old Budd factory on Fox Street, even with my GPS, I almost gave up and went home. Numerous construction roadblocks and detours added to the difficulty, but intrepid professionalism prevailed. By instinct, I made one more right turn onto Stokely Street, where my passenger spied the Fringe Festival banner.
A risky U-turn got us into the parking lot, 15 minutes past the 3pm start time, and as a reviewer, I worried that I’d missed the beginning. But the ever-helpful Fringe folk, handing us the libretto in English, assured us that we could stay as long as we liked, because the show cycles in hourlong shifts. I chose a Lithuanian friend as my plus one, and she too was helpful, pointing out the Lithuanian accents of certain singers and later, a melody that had its roots in a Lithuanian folk song: “The Vacationer’s Chorus.”
The perfect setting
The maledictions I’d been mentally throwing at Fringe organizers for picking the old Budd plant, where my uncles made railroad parts in the 1950s, dissipated once inside. It is the perfect setting for this opera by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė (direction and set), Vaiva Grainytė (libretto), and Lina Lapelytė (music). It premiered in 2017 at the Lithuanian National Gallery of Art before being translated into English for its 2019 run in Venice.
World stages rarely see anything on the large-scale scope of this seaside opera, which evokes the elaborate collaborative landscapes of Robert Ashley, Pina Bausch, or Robert Wilson. Although these artists were not filmmakers, they all used video or film and technology in some way. And while Sun & Sea is organic, with its 45-ton sandy beach, and lacks any noticeable technology other than sound, it certainly is filmic.
Like cast members, the audience views dozens of sun worshippers from above while leaning on surrounding rails as if on a boardwalk, free to move about to different sites.
View from the boardwalk
Below, on blankets and towels, families with young children and dogs, solo old timers, gay lovers, elderly couples, and singles raise their voices lying prone. Their often-prosaic lyrics and deceptively unmelodic songs reminded me of Ashley’s half-spoken operas, especially in the “Wealthy Mommy’s Song.”
They play board games, or get more physical with badminton or kicking soccer balls around. One bored teen does jumping jacks that don’t seem to interest him after all. They come and go on their way to the restrooms or food concessions. One boy delivers a tray of food to his mom with a mock curtsy. Movement is pedestrian, yet recognizably human in Bauschian ways, repetitive and ceaseless.
And so too is the ethereal singing of solos and choruses, almost like rounds. It begins with the “Sunscreen Bossa Nova,” through the “Philosopher’s Commentary,” and ends with the “Vacationer’s Chorus,” with many stories in between. The libretto moves between poetry like "Rose colored dresses flutter” to the quotidian “he had suffered a cramp.”
Longing to linger
Throughout the almost monotone, not quite chantlike soundscape, waves of climate-change foreboding wash across the listener’s ear: “Our bodies are covered with a slippery green fleece” or “Not a single climatologist predicted a scenario like this.” All at once, it is disquieting, entrancing, intoxicating. You want to linger, listening, watching it loop through again, like when you miss the first few minutes of a great film.
The show came to Philadelphia from its stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and travels next to the Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas, and then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
What, When, Where
Sun & Sea. By Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė. Directed by Barzdžiukaitė. $15-$25. Through October 3, 2021 at The Budd, 2831 Fox Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or Fringearts.com.
Audiences are required to show proof of full Covid vaccination. Masks must be worn while inside the building.
The Budd is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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