At Mass MoCA, "The Aging Magician" leads audiences through a special universe

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This story has been modified to remove a person erroneously listed as a member of the production team.

NORTH ADAMS — It isn't easy to pin down what's going on in "The Aging Magician," a collaborative cross-genre work of theater that will appear at Mass MoCA for one show this Sunday afternoon. It's a work that eagerly wants you to wonder — whose story is being told?

"There's an ambiguity that's earned through the piece," said Rinde Eckert, who wrote the libretto and is the lead performer.

But it is a safe bet to say that how this long-evolving finished product tells its story defies description and is probably unlike anything you've seen before. A mix of musical theater, choral concert, puppet show, art installation and elaborately contrived soundscape, it is a painstakingly-crafted small universe that is as immersive for the audience as it is for the performers.

For the past week, the show has filled the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA working out the final touches. The team behind it includes some leading names in avant-garde theater, including the Obie-award winner Eckert, with acclaimed composer Paola Prestini, director and set designer Julian Crouch, and video and projection design by Josh Higgason. Musical instruments were crafted by Mark Stewart and the performance on stage includes a string quartet and members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

The show has been in the works for five years, appearing in different versions through the years and evolving with each step. Sunday's show is the home stretch before its official premiere next weekend at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis.

The show at Mass MoCA marks the first time its elaborate set will appear complete on stage. The centerpiece is a large structure that can be played as a musical instrument, with elements that can be plucked, bowed, pounded, or whistled to make a variety of sounds.

Without spoiling too much of the surprise, it includes a set of spinning wheels that create a full, rich overtone sound that Stewart described as "heavenly," like an Orthodox choir singing in a neighboring valley.

The final story has settled on a watchmaker telling the story of a character possibly facing his end-of-life journey and trying to connect with his past and make sense of his life. It is described as a "music-theater work that paints an allegory on time, youth, and the peculiar magic of ordinary life, which moves us from the surgical repair of a timepiece to the magic show of time itself."

As the story unfolds, under the guidance of a Greek chorus of sorts and with the mechanical help of the stage, the themes of the story begin to blur.

Prestini said it began with a little bit about magic and the idea of crossing the River Styx, the boundary in Greek myth between the Earth and the Underworld.

"We started five years ago with a short piece that dealt with the idea of magic," she said. "That began the conversation."

From those ideas, each artist brought their own unique perspectives — thoughts about aging loved ones, the waterscapes of Venice, and navigating the subway in a new city to get all the way out to Coney Island.

The technique of finding parts of the story and adding on to it fit neatly with how each contributor thinks about their work.

"We all like to work with found objects," Eckert said. "This process has been one of increasing the number of objects in the room."

For the performer, the work presents an interesting set of challenges; not just navigating a stage full of musicians, singers, machines, lights, and projections, but a story that shifts and moves through time and space.

Eckert said this is his natural element.

"I actually function very well in chaos," Eckert joked. "The messier it is the more I feel at home."

Several of the artists have been at Mass MoCA before — Eckert appeared in "And God Created the Great Whales" in 2001 and more recently with Roomful of Teeth in 2009. Prestini was here in 2012 with her multimedia opera "Oceanic Verses" and again in 2014 for a residency for a group working on a collaborative project about the Colorado River.

"They've worked with us in residency before," said Sue Killam, Mass MoCA's director of performing arts and film. "They know the process, and that we're a welcoming home for projects that need time and space."

These kinds of collaboration are particularly useful for the artists, combining proximity to New York with just the right amount of distance that forces you to leave behind your ordinary life and concentrate.

And for Mass MoCA, projects like this combing their interest in performing arts, with compelling visual and musical elements as well, for things that are likely to get attention elsewhere.

"We're lucky to be that last stop," Killam said, "before they move on to the wider world."


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