REVIEW: Streb awesome, exhilarating, exhausting

Mar. 21, 2014 @ 04:36 PM

"STREB: Forces!" begins with a loud, thunderous sound as company members violently shake as if the world as they knew it is about to crack open. It did. What took place, in this performance Wednesday at UNC's Memorial Hall, left one feeling awed, astounded, exhilarated -- and exhausted. Talk about engaging the audience on a kinetic level -- this show did it to the max.
Physical feats took us to a galaxy far, far away. There were so many jaw-dropping moments that by the end of the show, my neck felt stiff. Heroes fell face-first from a girder that kept rising so that by the time the last performer, Cassandre Joseph, plummeted, she was falling at 35.3 miles per hour.  She landed face-first on a mat and got up as though it was just another day on the job -- a job devised by Extreme Action Architect Elizabeth Streb.
Centrifugal force -- no problem. In this section, these "action heroes" defied gravity on a rotating stage. Feet planted, they leaned forward at an extreme angle on the edge of falling forward. One male "hero" pulled off a tour-de-force feat when he slowly bent over backward until he was inches from the stage and then slowly righted himself.
Split-second timing enables performers to avoid a swinging steel beam. Even while on their backs, the beam inches away, they manage to repeatedly pop their heads up without getting clobbered.
Performers also managed to run, jump, perform flips as well as take Superman dives off The Whizzing Gizmo. So what, if it's 25-feet high, constantly turning and sometimes a little jerky as performers pile onto this apparatus based on the Espana brothers' Wheel of Death.
This is no mere physical show, however. All elements -- sound, lighting, projection, design as well as cinematography make for a cohesive whole that has humor, beauty and is sometimes downright poetic. I've never seen a Streb show quite like this. (The last show I saw was in 2010.)
Video footage, projected on a large screen, enriches and informs this "Forces!" show. Before it officially starts, we're introduced to performers and get a glimpse of their personalities as well as height, weight and other information. One guy talked about how his mother closes her eyes when she comes to see him perform. Another lists his weight as "light as a feather."
Streb appears onscreen at various times. As she talks about a range of topics on the theme of daring to do what others deem impossible, her passion and sense of humor comes through. She mentions some her heroes -- including the Wright Brothers and Larry Walters. She tells us how Walters, on July 2, 1982, strapped himself to a patio chair attached to 45 helium balloons, and rose 16,000 feet over Los Angeles. After he successfully landed, a police officer asked him why he did it and Walters replied, according to Streb, "’I was curious. Besides, a man can't just sit around.’"
At other times, video images create environmental and cosmic atmosphere. In the "Fly" section, performers, rigged with harnesses and bungee cords, "walk" down the outside of a Brooklyn apartment building and launch themselves off it. Ultimately, they appear to soar toward Outer Space as video shows the earth and then the moon getting smaller behind them.
Humor pops up throughout the show, most notably in the section featuring the "claw" apparatus and a performer gifted with balletic grace as well as strength. She's inside the "claw," weighted at one end, so that it swings. And, other company members provide support in unexpected ways. A male performer stands, raises one hand, palm up, and she performs a one-foot toe stand in his hand. Another time, she walks on the heads of a line of performers.
These are just a few of many outstanding moments in this spectacular show.
Note: "Born to Fly," a documentary about Elizabeth Streb, will be screened at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 3 at 8 p.m.