Multitudes the Kimmel Center wanted, and multitudes it got.

With its 100-foot time tunnel, a 20-minute commissioned piece of music theater in the lobby, and other lures, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts on Thursday woke the Kimmel from its usual somnambulism.

Opening night of the biennial festival, which runs through April 27, coincided with regular subscription concerts in the Kimmel's two bigger venues by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Many of its longtime patrons forged through the lobby frisson with expressions ranging from indifference to irritation, as if concerned only that the parade float that had landed in their living room was now impeding the route to the bathroom.

But mostly the crowds were amused, with several thousand sorting themselves like marbles through so many cultural chutes: singer-songwriter types to the lobby stage, nostalgists toward the rear for mock TV dinners designed by the Jose Garces team, others to a play up in the Hamilton Rooftop Garden or to cabaret down in the Innovation Studio, and all seekers of a rare Bach sacred oratorio in your Verizon Hall seats by 8:05, please.

'Very confusing'

The theme is time travel - an idea already proving to be a populist, if rather vaporous, pursuit. It seems anything that happened yesterday or might be happening tomorrow (or today) qualifies. But the centerpiece of the lobby, a $450,000 time machine, is more explicit.

And enigmatic. There are few instructions posted anywhere, nothing explaining that the experience is very different during the day than at night, when a substantial and beautifully textured video component is activated. (In daylight, the only partially enclosed video would not be seen.) More confounding still, when a "time attendant" posted at the entrance ramp was approached with questions, he could not explain the time tunnel's operation.

"It's all very confusing," said Helma Weeks of Powelton Village, who walked over before a show at the Wilma Theater. "I thought it would do more."

It does. It came to life after dark, and visitors were entranced. A mix of science-museum exhibit and installation art, the tunnel contains a series of bays. The more time you spend in each, the more of its function it reveals. In one, you are met with an animated projection of telescoping circles embedded with historical facts and illustrations. The farther you lean in, the faster faces of and facts about Tolstoy, Poe, and Edison whiz toward you.

In another, you stand beneath a sea of suspended acrylic rods strung with fiber optics and grip two metal poles. As you stand there, you hear a chime, and then a heartbeat. And then you realize the heartbeat is yours. The rods light up, sometimes pink, sometimes blue or multicolored. When you get a good strong connection, they flash bright white - off and on, off and on.

In people streamed, the young and old, the skeptical and the merry, the Chanel-dabbed and the patchouli-doused. The Kimmel ordinarily draws a diverse crowd, but in separate shifts. Here, in the intimacy of the time tunnel, skateboarder was forced to nestle up against Main Line matron, and particularly so at the heartbeat bay, where hearing one's heartbeat publicly stirred a near-universal need to say something:

"I'm steering," said one man as he held the two metal wands.

"I just drank a lot of coffee," explained a woman.

"I'm hyper."


["Something very excited in Japanese."]

At the end of the time tunnel, visitors can sit at computers for more. When they enter e-mail address, hometown, and birth date, the computer produces a timeline of events coinciding with their lives. The last question reveals the exercise to be more useful to the Kimmel than to the visitor: Do you want to receive e-mail from the Kimmel?

Out of the mists

Twice daily (7 and 10:30 p.m. except Mondays) for the duration of the festival, anyone can wander in and see, for free, a piece of Kimmel-produced music theater, Flash of Time. The computer-kiosk area doubles as a stage, where two clownish figures wander out and discover a time machine. But the time machine works only intermittently. And during the course of 20 minutes, in a musical style that refers to the Kimmel's role as importer of Broadway shows, various figures sing and dance their way out of the mists of time.

Revolutionary War soldiers, frontier folk, figures from the future (in requisite silver-Spandex suits) cover a score closely related to Disney musicals and Barbie films. An enormous woolly mammoth made of plastic shopping bags woven into a plastic orange construction fence makes a notable cameo.

Taken together, the time tunnel, the show, the theme itself are more atmospheric than conveyors of real insight. But if it's genuine time travel you want, you can always partake of what's at the Kimmel the rest of the year.

Thursday was a good representation. The Borodin Quartet in the Perelman put listeners in society with Shostakovich and Beethoven, and in Verizon, the Bach St. Matthew Passion got 2,500 audience members safely to 1727 and back.

Contact Peter Dobrin

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