Before the invention of movies — those sequences of still pictures that create the illusion of movement when they’re projected rapidly — audiences were entertained by other sorts of “motion pictures” and projections. A projector known as the “magic lantern” was invented as early as the 1650s, frightening viewers with ghostly, demonic apparitions. In the 1830s, artist John Banvard stirred a popular sensation by performing in front of a long panoramic painting that scrolled behind him on moving rollers. Devices such as the Kinetoscope and Zoopraxiscope, tricking people into believing they were seeing pictures move.
The newest show by Redmoon Theater owes a debt to these pre-cinematic picture shows. The Astronaut’s Birthday looks like a comic book come alive as it flashes on the grid of 18 square windows on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s front wall. At the beginning of Thursday’s performance, Redmoon Artistic Director Frank Magueri informed the audience that the show involved nothing digital.
This was not a video or film being projected in front of us. Rather, it was a series of pictures on transparent sheets of plastic, projected onto the windows from inside the museum, using the most rudimentary of devices — overhead projectors. Yes, the sort of machines you might remember your grade-school teacher using. The show also uses shadows. At some points, as we sit on the bleachers outside the museum, we see the silhouettes of the Redmoon performers inside the building projected onto those windows.
A great part of the fun comes from thinking about what the Redmoon folks are doing every minute of this show to get all of those pictures to come together on the wall in front of us. It’s like watching a movie being assembled by hand, projected in real time. And that grid gives it the look of a comic book.
The story of The Astronaut’s Birthday is just the right sort of sci-fi plot to go with these stunning visuals. It’s a thrilling ride, made all the more compelling by Jeff Thomas’ musical score and Tony Fitzpatrick’s narration. The story becomes a little vague and enigmatic as it reaches its climax, striving toward a meaningful sort of resolution without completely getting there. But this is a truly inventive and innovative show. Once again, Redmoon is creating its own sort of art, defying the usual genre definitions.
The Astronaut’s Birthday will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays until Sept. 26. See www.redmoon.org or www.mcachicago.org for details.