Now more than ever, we need bold, inventive new theater. We need art that challenges and inspires thought when oversimplification and standardization are the norm. Neil Simon's oeuvre had its place and time, but theater's survival in this century depends on its ability to remain relevant to a world that threatens to pass it by.
With Apollo, receiving its world premiere at Portland Center Stage, writer/director/designer Nancy Keystone makes an ambitious attempt. Light, sound, design, and movement mingle brilliantly in an epic piece that is, itself, about bold ambition. Unfortunately, the production staggers under its own weight. Clocking in at nearly four hours, Keystone's opus is sorely in need of an editor—although it's rich with gorgeous moments and incredible scenes, its lack of focus makes it little more than an exercise in endurance by the time the thing lets out.
Apollo spans the 1900s, linking man's dream of space travel with Nazi war crimes, the Cold War, and America's Civil Rights Movement. More than any specific historical fact or moment, the play is about our relentless upward reach, even if we must stand on the necks of others to do so.
The production includes gorgeous use of projection, sound, and lighting—and the 12-person ensemble puts forth incredible performances. It's the play itself that's the problem. Impactful moments of movement are sustained twice as long as necessary; irrelevant scenes are scattered throughout, distracting from the story and doing little but add to the running time; the hammer of overindulgence beats incessantly in every single scene.
And it's a shame, because there really is something there. If Keystone had focused on one or two of the stories she wanted to tell, if she'd investigated character and substance instead of giving them over to form and rhythm, if she'd simply employed a judicious editor—the play would be a masterwork. There are some things that can only be done in theater that no other medium can capture. When movement, voice, music, light, and place intersect perfectly onstage, they create a visceral resonance that is unmatched by any other form. Keystone knows how to achieve this mix, and she creates those moments beautifully. Now she needs to get out of her own way so the rest of us can experience them.