echo::system -- The Desert | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

echo::system -- The Desert

Echo::system -- The Desert is a, uh ... science fiction? About migratory humanoids? On Mars? Who wander a long, long ways? And break off into sub-species? Called the Suits? And there are skateboarders? And everybody sings, maybe in English? And, uh ...

OK, who even knows what The Desert is about. It really doesn't matter. From the moment you take your ticket at the New Hazlett Theater, and the house manager explains that there are no chairs for the audience, and you can sit anywhere on the stage, and you are encouraged to move around during the performance, you feel a tingly sensation -- this warm feeling that The Desert will be a genuinely novel experience. Here, in this wide-open room, there is ingenuity at play.

In a city like New York or Seattle, The Desert would be fairly run-of-the-mill -- surreal multimedia theater, propeled more by elegant modern dance than by plot and personality. But for Pittsburgh, The Desert is an artistic oasis. The six performers move with an uncommon fluidity; the choreography is daring and distinctive. If Wood Street Galleries and Attack Theatre collaborated on a drum-and-bass-infused creation myth, The Desert might result.

But that collaboration did not take place. Rather, The Desert was formed by Grisha Coleman, an import from New York to Carnegie Mellon's Studio for Creative Inquiry, a woman so multi-talented and heavily awarded that her biography resists summary. She combines video feeds, lighting effects, precision movement, ambient singing, innovative percussive music, and even a fleet of treadmills -- plus she performs in the piece. The performers are not only fully dedicated, dancing in the same space as their crouching audience; they are also fearless. It doesn't matter that the plot makes no sense. The Desert is a transcendent experience -- a polysensory epic of struggle and evolution. Whatever Coleman's plans, I can only implore her to stay in the city. Her imagination alone is quickening.

Pathetic as it is to have to mention, The Desert is also notable for its casting: This is one of the most ethnically diverse casts I've ever seen on a Pittsburgh stage. True, it "shouldn't matter," but the spectrum of Coleman's colleagues is an inspiring surprise -- not only for their ancestries, but for their own prolific and globe-trotting backgrounds. In a city that grumbles about its lack of diversity, even in the arts, The Desert breaks further ground.

If there is justice, local producers frustrated with the Pittsburgh scene (and there are many) will take 70 minutes this weekend to see this visionary production. The Desert may not be a blueprint for the future, but it is a vivid mirage of possibility.

echo::system -- The Desert continues through Sat., Sept. 15. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. 412-394-3353