During a scene in the science-fiction play “Nufonia Must Fall,” a shy, obsolete machine named Robot treats his date, a quiet roboticist named Malorie, to a night of romantic adventures. As Robot and Malorie stroll through the big city, plastic and wood backdrops shift into view, including a movie theater, a restaurant and a starry lookout point. To pull off the sequence onstage, an army of puppeteers stands over a 6-foot-long tabletop diorama, frantically dashing to swap out each backdrop and to animate the tiny puppets, including Robot and Malorie.
The montage plays out like a silent, vaudeville-style comedy film — neither character speaks, but instead makes exaggerated hand gestures — and cameras are trained on the miniature sets while black-and-white footage from the play is projected on a screen above the stage. Standing onstage near the diorama is turntablist and producer Eric San, aka DJ Kid Koala, who scores this scene with electric ukulele music.
“It’s quite an elaborate choreography, manipulating everything in real time,” San says of the fast-moving production. “It’s akin to 15 people standing on one surfboard.”
San, reached by phone at his home in Montreal, says the intricate puppet show is designed to look cinematic and “convincing.” That will be the case when “Nufonia Must Fall” visits Bailey Hall in Davie on Thursday, April 6, and Friday, April 7, and Olympia Theater in Miami on Saturday, April 8.
Because puppeteers handle set pieces while theatergoers watch, no two performances of the play look the same, San says. The show follows Robot, a music-obsessed, Sony Walkman-listening robot who falls for an attractive office worker while a newer-model robot, Hexabot, conspires to take his place. San’s soundtrack provides the play’s emotional heartbeat, and he will be accompanied onstage by a ring of Wurlitzer pianos, synthesizers and the Toronto-based string quartet Afiara.
“There’s a lot of transparency to the whole production, because everything happens in front of you,” says San, 42, who adapted “Nufonia Must Fall” from his 2003 graphic novel of the same name and has staged 50 performances since 2014. “Some people going to the show are just too wrapped up in the film, while other audiences want to just watch the puppeteers onstage. It can be a set designer shaking potato flakes over the set to simulate snow. So the enjoyment is all about, ‘Oh, that's how they’re doing it.’ ”
To pull off the dreamy, futuristic tone of “Nufonia Must Fall,” San says he partnered with Academy Award-nominated production designer K.K. Barrett, notable for working on the Spike Jonze films “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Her.” The play, which includes slapstick, was also inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times.”
“I would hope it feels like a silent Chaplin film,” San says. “It’s a balance of laugh-out-loud moments and touching moments where it hits you in the heart. And we actually invite everyone after the show to come up onstage and look at the sets.”
“Nufonia Must Fall” will be staged 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6, and Friday, April 7, at Bailey Hall, 3501 Davie Road, in Davie, and Saturday, April 8, at Olympia Theater, 174. E. Flagler St., in Miami. Admission costs $26-$48 at Bailey Hall, $35-$50 at Olympia Theater. For Bailey Hall, call 954-201-6884 or go to BaileyHall.org. For the Olympia Theater, call 305-237-3010 or go to MDCLiveArts.org.
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