April 13, 2010
 

Off-Off-Broadway Goes 3-D!

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Chances are you've never seen--upclose and personal--the Musion Eyeliner video holographic projection system. In a compact theater setting, it can be configured like a traditional theatrical scrim--except it's translucent and raked to accept images (film clips, animation, artwork, virtual life-size talking actors in 3-D) from projectors mounted below a thrust stage. Eyeliner holograms have been used by Madonna, David Beckham and Al Gore, but from tonight through June 30 the technology is powering a compelling original drama called "Frequency Hopping" in the stylish 3LD Art and Technology Center. This jewelbox theater is at 80 Greenwich Street, a short stroll from Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.

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That off-the-beaten-path location has a certain dark irony. "Frequency Hopping" was a name given to simplify the work of a jamming device invented in 1940 to prevent the Nazis' torpedo guidance systems from striking American ships during World War II. The initial concept was worked out on a piano roll programmed with 80 frequencies, and came to be known as "spread spectrum"--one of the foundation pieces of today's cellular phone technology.

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Who would invent such a wonder? This is where truth gets far, far stranger than fiction. George Antheil (1900-1959) was an avant-garde musician and composer whose seminal 1924 "Ballet Mecanique" used multiple pianos, xylophones, bass drums, and even three airplane propellers. Antheil is better known for his later scores for films noir like "In A Lonely Place," and "Knock On Any Door." In 1940 Anthiel was a bon vivant writing for Esquire, and he got acquainted with Hedy Lamarr, a tall, throaty Hollywood star who swam nude in the 1933 "Ecstasy" and starred with Victor Mature in "Samson and Delilah." Hedy was an Austrian emigre whose first German husband knew weaponry and aircraft, and her own inquiring mind and knowledge synced with Antheil's pioneering musical instincts. Together, they created and patented frequency-hopping as their support-the-war-effort contribution.

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The artist who's turned this unlikely collaboration into a riveting two-character play is writer/director Elyse Singer of the Hourglass Group ("The Beebo Brinker Chronicles"). Singer's use of Eyeliner's 3-D imagery to illustrate and animate their research-and-development is mesmerizing. Hedy's face on a movie magazine cover suddenly comes to life and starts speaking. A virtual 3-D life-size Hedy plays stage left to Antheil at stage right, while the actress playing Hedy reclines on her sofa upstage center. You've seen this kind of visual magic in movies like "A.I," "Minority Report" and "A Scanner Darkly," but watching it happen in a live theatrical drama just twenty feet from your seat is breathtaking.

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Singer has joined these visual fireworks with a sound plot that's equally dazzling. Using eight synchronized Yamaha Disklavier player pianos on surrounding platforms (along with suspended bass drums, gongs and xylophones), Singer dials up a 25-piece robotic orchestra created by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR). The centerpiece of Hedy's 1940 living room, with its cozy period furnishings, is a radio bathed in golden light, its dials illuminated by glowing tubes. But the living room is virtually enclosed by this massive collection of old and new instruments, all augmented by a battery of technicians sitting behind computers in the back of the theater. Are we in the past or the future? The answer is yes.

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Singer's two actors are inspired choices, too. Joe Urla, a skilled and experienced pro, plays Antheil as a likeable mix of the Runyon motormouth smart guy and the innocent 40s kid feverishly digging for his prize at the bottom of the cereal box. Singer's casting of Hedy is as bold and daring as this whole play, for Erica Newhouse graduated during previews in Julliard's Class of 2008. Erica is a mirror image, tall and willowy like Hedy, and in high-waisted slacks her legs seem to go on forever. She's nailed the part, including some high-stepping dancing with Urla and a chanteuse 'specialty' number sprawled out on one of those stacked-up Yamahas. It's a spectacular debut.

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"Films have a certain place in a certain time period, but technology is forever," Hedy Lamarr once noted. In real life, neither the actress nor her composer pal ever received a cent for their invention. Hedy plowed through a string of high and low screen melodramas from "Algiers" to "The Strange Woman" to "The Female Animal," and might be considered a more exotic, Europeanized version of Joan Bennett. Hedy was finally recognized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which honored her in 1997 at age 83, three years before her passing.

Tickets for "Frequency Hopping" are $20, which has to be New York's best theatrical buy this summer. If you're up for a play with real depth--not to mention length and width--head downtown without delay.

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Photos: Copyright 2008, Dixie Sheridan.
Multimedia Design: Copyright 2008, Elaine J. McCarthy.





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