Review: ‘Flight’ Has No Live Actors. But Its Story of 2 Afghan Boys Feels So Real.
NEW YORK — The wood-paneled elevator that ferries guests up to “Flight” at the McKittrick Hotel rises at a languid pace, and the tinny, piped-in music sounds like something out of a speak-easy. Atmospherically, it seems an awkward match with the show you’ve come to see, about a pair of Afghan child refugees crossing Europe in search of sanctuary.Posted — Updated
NEW YORK — The wood-paneled elevator that ferries guests up to “Flight” at the McKittrick Hotel rises at a languid pace, and the tinny, piped-in music sounds like something out of a speak-easy. Atmospherically, it seems an awkward match with the show you’ve come to see, about a pair of Afghan child refugees crossing Europe in search of sanctuary.
So does the McKittrick, not a hotel at all but the sprawling Chelsea complex that is the longtime home of the immersive-theater behemoth “Sleep No More,” where spectators roam dimly lit halls on multiple floors, traipsing through rooms that are essentially art installations in which performances periodically break out.
Created by the Scottish company Vox Motus, and a hit at the Edinburgh International Festival, “Flight” is 180 degrees different from that vast and ambulatory production — still, intimate, visceral, rendered on a Lilliputian scale and requiring you to do nothing but watch and listen. Intricately designed yet with no live performers, it is arguably not even theater. But it is pulse-pounding, immersive storytelling, strange and exquisite and intensely affecting.
As you’re led to it in the dark, your seat looks like a library carrel, partitioned off like all of the others. You sit, you don a pair of headphones and in a few moments the show will appear, tableaus inside a succession of little windows, lit up one by one and slowly revolving on a carousel.
The refugees are orphans. Darling round-faced Kabir is 7 or 8, and his big brother Aryan is on the cusp of adolescence, the two of them crossing perilously from Turkey into Greece. The landscape is rocky and they are tiny against it, but bound, they are sure, for England, where they want to go to school.
Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey) has taught Kabir (voiced by Nalini Chetty) their route, drilling it into him so thoroughly that the boy speaks it like one long, exultant word:
As soon as their story begins, you are whooshed into it with an immediacy that would be impossible in any other form. On screen or in print or even with live actors, physical and emotional distance would form a barrier. But the directors, Jamie Harrison (whose big upcoming Broadway credit is for the illusions in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) and Candice Edmunds, have created a world in miniature inches from our own eyes that allows us, somehow, a straight line into all of its fear and danger and battered resilience.
Adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’s novel “Hinterland,” the show rides the currents of the story with relatively minimal narration and dialogue, and excellent aural assistance from Mark Melville’s sound design and score. But the richly colored, minutely detailed visuals — designed by Harrison and Rebecca Hamilton and beautifully lit by Simon Wilkinson — are the wonder of “Flight.”
Brown-haired and green-eyed, Aryan and Kabir look like Claymation figures, but they also look like the Afghan woman with mesmerizing eyes in Steve McCurry’s famous photo. For 45 swift minutes, we follow these boys on their tortuous journey — hiding in the darkened back of a truck, unwillingly indentured into farm work, at long last in sight of the white cliffs of Dover yet unable to reach them across the channel. There are surreal scenes of nightmare and menace, but glorious moments of joy, too.
Although enchanting sounds like the wrong word for a work of art as intrinsically painful and political as “Flight,” enchanting it is. We project so much life onto its tableaus that they hardly seem still.
It is jarring to resurface at show’s end, from harrowing privation into cushy Chelsea. You exit through a lounge where people are eating and drinking, and out onto a roof deck with Manhattan sparkling all around you. Then back down in the elevator onto a street of art galleries.
There are many shows that you leave feeling lucky you’ve seen them. “Flight” is a show you leave feeling lucky to be in this city, in this country, safe — if you are safe — instead of on the run.
‘Flight’Through March 25 at the McKittrick Hotel, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, mckittrickhotel.com. Running time: 45 minutes.
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.