A futuristic, family-oriented 'Icarus'

Icarus without feathers - and with a semi-happy ending - can still be Icarus.

In a new version created jointly by physicist/author Brian Greene, playwright David Henry Hwang, and composer Philip Glass, the paragon of youthful hubris lives in an age well beyond the wax wings of antiquity, piloting a spacecraft that veers too close to a black hole. You might think you know the rest, but Icarus at the Edge of Time, which enveloped Verizon Hall on Wednesday with a huge video screen, narrator, and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, has a smarter message: Respect the unknown.

This co-presentation by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and the Philadelphia Science Festival had the instructional air of a planetarium show, which rightly attracted a family audience, while the Hwang/Glass axis no doubt drew the alternative-theater crowd on the strength of such past collaborations as 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (about alien abduction).

With a bit less terror than Airplanes, but a technically advanced production, Icarus has a 14-year-old boy genius flying around a black hole in his personal craft, not realizing that the hole's extreme gravity slows time. Returning from his one-hour adventure, he finds that thousands of years have passed. He saw nothing worth seeing (since black holes are black), and he has outlived everybody he loves. You saw that conclusion coming light-years away. The point is what the journey felt like.

What can't yet be imagined can at least dazzle - the artistic viewpoint of the video presentation by Al + Al (Al Holmes and Al Taylor). Every moment pulsated with invention, the boy's appearance changing in the gravitational field; he later stumbles upon an intergalactic highway pioneered in ages past by the mother ship he left for his excursion. The beings he encounters are ethereal and amorphous, reminiscent of jellyfish - though they at least speak his language.

Hwang's narration is swift and tight, read by author, activist, and Broadway actress Kate Shindle, who accommodated its multiple voices without gimmicky effects by simply entering the world of the characters.

She was buoyed by Glass' hugely effective wall-to-wall score, in which his basic minimalist language pulsated along with the video. Vividly colored even by his standards with a touch of Star Wars brassiness,  it was played with muscularity and precision by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra under Louis Scaglione.

 


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.