Creator and performer Patrick Olson explores science, philosophy, and human perception through a mix of direct-address monologues, original live music, stylized movement, and immersive visual imagery in the NYC premiere of his non-narrative conceptual piece Emergence: Things Are Not as They Seem at Pershing Square Signature Center. Backed by a company of four musicians, four singers, and three dancers, Olson poses questions and uses his knowledge of physics – in addition to his background in music, he is a publisher of educational science texts – to explain the what, where, how, and why of our existence, energy, and the time-space continuum, while observing that the answers are often contrary to what we might think and more complex than the shortcuts our minds take and the paradigms we create in attempting to understand the mysteries of life.
Dressed in a three-piece suit that transitions from shades of orange to hot pink, Olson presents his intellectual ponderings in readily comprehensible terms and free verse, interjecting everyday examples of what he discusses, interactive segments that require everyone close their eyes and imagine, and pregnant pauses to give us time to contemplate and to digest the profound concepts he describes. The mood shifts back and forth from hypnotic to psychedelic, with sonic levels that range from gentle to aggressively loud to silent, and portions that break from the artistic stylings to Olson sitting at the edge of the stage, jumping down onto the floor, and speaking to the audience in a normal tone of voice without the poetic phrasing, bringing it all down to earth and connecting directly in familiar terms.
Between his spoken-word musings are ten original thematically related songs – including such topical subjects as “Time,” “In My Mind,” “Energy,” and “Becoming” – performed by Olson and the captivating company, all dressed in black (with Angela Aaron serving as stylist), of back-up singers Cherry Davis, Samara Brown, Miya Bass, and Bella Kosal, and musicians Ian Jesse on bass, Nadav Hezi on guitar, Jordan Coker on drums, and Thomas Nickell on keys, along with beautiful bits of expressionist dance by Summer Sheldrick, Dana Liebezeit, and Lavy Cavaliere.
All are given their moments to shine, and all of it is enhanced with haze effects, paper raining down on the stage, colorful lighting (by Wasted Potential/Jordan Noltner), with spotlights shining into the house and into our eyes, and active LED projections (designed by FutureTalk Inc./Jonathon Corbiere and Tyler Sammy; Wasted Potential/Nick Proctor) on a large background screen and on the walls of the theater, in a full sensory experience that underscores Olson’s overlying message of the conversion of pure starlight into energy, love, and consciousness that is constantly becoming and expanding.
Olson also takes inspiration from experimental new wave and performance artists of the 1980s, like David Byrne, in the jerky staccato moves and probing questions that evoke the lyrics of Talking Heads’ 1980 hit “Once in a Lifetime” (“You may ask yourself . . . And you may tell yourself . . . Well, how did I get here?”), Laurie Anderson, in his spoken lyrics and his songs “Falling” and “Walk” (as in “Walking and Falling” from her 1982 album Big Science), and Robert Palmer, in his microphone stand and matching black costumes and consciously coordinated moves of the back-up singers (recalling the video of Palmer’s 1986 single “Addicted to Love”). And there is the lecture-style format that suggests the manner of a TED talk, which began in 1984, with the optimistic intent of sharing uplifting “ideas worth spreading.” So, while he speaks of love coming from light, he neglects to tell us if it’s also the source of hatred and other negative energy, and then reinforces the positivity by greeting everyone in the lobby immediately after the show to hand each of us a yellow tulip (a reference to his earlier discussion of the absorption and reflection of color).
If you are haunted by the questions “Are we alive?” How did we get here?” “What is the nature of time?” and “Where does human love originate?” and enjoy experimental works and immersive experiences with affirmative mind-expanding content, Emergence is one to consider. It’s not your traditional musical or concert, but a merger of the creative arts with thought-provoking scientific theory that will keep you entertained – and leave you fact-checking.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.
Emergence: Things Art Not as They Seem plays through Sunday, January 7, 2024, at Pershing Square Signature Center, Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $37-151, including fees), go online. Masks are not required.