As you roll your chair up to a darkened booth and place headphones over your ears, you’ll likely wonder, What the hell is happening here? I thought I was seeing a show. That discombobulation puts you in the appropriately foreign mind-set for Flight, an epic refugee tale rendered in miniature. Although I wouldn’t call it theater—there are no live performers; the narrative is told via scrolling illuminated dioramas synced to a prerecorded soundtrack—it doesn’t fit neatly into any other artistic genre either. But whether it strikes you as an art installation or a 3-D graphic novel or a twist on the old zoetrope, it’s a captivating, one-of-a-kind experience.
Flight is based on Caroline Brothers’s 2012 novel, Hinterland, about two orphaned brothers fleeing their war-torn homeland of Afghanistan in the hope of building a new life in England. Their multiyear transcontinental journey—”Kabul-Tehran-Istanbul-Athens-Rome-Paris-London!”—is arduous and awesome, and innovative Scottish theater company Vox Motus was smart to eschew a traditional approach to the material. Onstage, the scope of the story would have been impossible to communicate. But the breathtakingly detailed models (you can see tears running down the boys’ cheeks), presented from a variety of perspectives (close-ups, overhead shots, panoramas) and with a layered soundscape, give Flight a cinematic feel as you journey with the innocent, prepubescent Kabir and the wary, teenage Aryan in search of sanctuary.
Flight premiered to great acclaim at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival and is now ensconced for a limited run at the faux-retro McKittrick Hotel, home to the NC-17 immersive reimagining of Macbeth, Sleep No More. With its creative presentation and brief 45-minute run time, Flight might sound more kid-friendly. But be warned: This is a decidedly grown-up and urgent tale. Homelessness, forced labor, starvation, imprisonment, and even rape are part of the boys’ ordeal, and the ending is not a happy one. Lighter moments (Kabir has an adorable fixation on Bruce Willis) and the siblings’ palpable love stop it from becoming a total downer, yet the recommended age minimum of 14 sounds about right to me.
Since you watch Flight on your own, it’s a very intimate but also disconnected event. Perhaps it’s the episodic nature of the narrative—it’s often hard to grasp how the boys get from one destination to another. Or maybe the lack of the usual communal energy of theater dulls the impact. I just know I found myself more impressed with Flight‘s artistry than emotionally intoxicated.
But I’ll never forget it. In fact, many of the images are seared into my brain: the brothers cowering in fear in front of border agents or huddling for warmth in the back of a refrigerated truck, or their recurring nightmares of ferocious—yet free—birds. Through unexpected and evocative storytelling, Flight manages to humanize the nameless hordes of refugees we read about in the media every day. You’ll be acutely aware of how privileged a life you lead once it’s over.
Why You Should Go: Whether it strikes you as an art installation or a 3-D graphic novel or a twist on the old zoetrope, it’s a captivating, one-of-a-kind experience.
530 West 27th Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues), Chelsea
Through Sunday, April 8