Cynthia Hopkins traverses time and space — and the extremes of success and failure — to reach the sublime
THEATER A rare sighting the weekend of Nov. 18-20 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Cynthia Hopkins, as intergalactic space pilot Ruom Yes Noremac, a post-human "Druoc" in a floppy silver space suit hovering high above the stage of the Novellus Theatre, returning from the far distant future ... to do what? "Save the earth, of course."
It was one of many memorable moments in The Success of Failure (Or, the Failure of Success), a comical operetta musing on "the pros and cons of evolution," and part three in the wildly inventive Accidental Trilogy developed by the New York City–based artist and company Accinosco. Before a spacescape projected across an enormous screen, above a stage aglow and twinkling with arch sci-fi phantasmagoria, Hopkins appeared to defy gravity with her deft spectacle and ethereal song. The atmosphere was one of all-pervading nostalgia and regret.
The real high-wire act, however, lay ahead, in the second half of the piece, after the conclusion of a wacky and yearning sci-fi bedtime story narrated from a billion years hence by a silvery flashing orb to her smaller, highly inquisitive offspring. By that point, baby orb has rebelled against the downer ending of mama orb's story, preferring to make up a happy conclusion instead — that childlike one in which human beings do manage to evolve past self-destruction just in time.
The stage emptied itself of all pretense and everything but the barest of effects, leaving just the 38-year-old Hopkins and her story. Surrounded by a cluster of musical instruments and backed by a hand-drawn star chart of personal crisis and loss, she managed a feat of confessional theater. With uncommon and at times unnerving frankness and poise, Hopkins' planetary grief and trepidation gave way to a hauntingly brazen concern with saving herself.
Between the planetary and the personal there was no contradiction. The stated aim of the entire Accidental Trilogy is a "mediation on the miraculously powerful (though intensely challenging) process of self-transformation," as well as the tension between unbearable truths and their transformation into entertainments. Hopkins makes that plain at several points along the way, but never more brilliantly than in the opening lines of the final monologue, as she verbally telescopes, by orders of magnitude, from the full expanse of time and space to her precise location before a San Francisco audience.
This soul-bearing, careening, and stunningly well-delivered monologue cracks open the trilogy's slyly self-referential conceit, founded on the life of character and alter ego Cameron Seymour (spelled backward in the sci-fi joint to derive space pilot Ruom). Hopkins takes us without artifice — beyond the assistance of her luminous songs — to the darkest points of her own evolution. Amnesia, escapism, failure, and alcoholism: these points reaching back to the defining grief of a mother who died of cancer when Hopkins was a girl. Her mother's resolute faith and early demise stand throughout in wrenching ironic contrast to both her own and her father's willful yet unsuccessful attempts to "throw ourselves into the jaws of death."
"This is a funeral pyre," she tells us, "and onto it I'm going to toss this method of turning truth into grotesque fiction." The end comes in a blaze of passion and pain and conjecture, frenetic and quasi-poetic reenactments of past mania, and almost sacramental bursts of quirky, moving song. But, through "a magical ritual called forgiveness," from those ashes something else rises, mushroom-like, at the scene of disaster. The universe collapses even further — down from the distance of galaxies and tongue-in-cheek fantasy, the pretense of art and performance, and the nostalgia for the loss of it all — onto a single face, captured in a tight beam of slowly fading light, as above her own unamplified guitar a bare crystalline voice muses in song on the wonder of the sun.
As a close encounter, it was one of a kind.