The stage is dim– lit only by a soft white glow. Nine actors breathe in a haunting, rhythmic chorus. Their bodies sway to the chugging of the train. The rise and fall, the side to side, calls to mind deep-seated nostalgia, the feeling of travel that, as a child, felt never-ending. As Passengers progresses, the Seattle Repertory Theatre stops feeling like a theater. The acrobats stop being just actors, their daring stunts transform from just circus spectacle. The audience is pulled into a heart-wrenching and deeply human story, told masterfully with the bodies of the performers. Circus is used as a creative device, where the stunts come second to the story. Passengers is one of the most uniquely beautiful things I have ever seen.
The masterminds behind Passengers, The 7 Fingers, are a Montreal-based creative collective of writers, directors, and choreographers who, in their words, “push the definition and potential of live performance, telling human stories with superhuman skills” (Seattle Rep). Human, and yet, superhuman. Down-to-earth, and yet soaring on aerial silks. With masters of seemingly every circus discipline among the cast, “superhuman” doesn’t begin to describe their ability. Passengers is directed, written, and choreographed by one woman– Shana Carroll, co-founding artistic director of The 7 Fingers. In an interview for Encore+, she says her inspiration for the show came from her 20s when she was living and working mostly in Europe.
“Some of the most memorable and pivotal moments of my life occurred on trains… that moment of limbo between lives, stuck in one place and yet nowhere.” This sense of “limbo” is in every fiber of Passengers. From the stories of the characters themselves to the death-defying suspension of many of the acts, the almost two-hour show feels timeless— suddenly, you’re not in your seat, you’re in the train car with the cast. You watch scenes pass, varying in tone and circus discipline, but never in impact. To me, this magnetism is part of what makes Passengers a wonder.
Despite the technical mastery, skill alone isn’t what makes this performance spectacular. The 7 Fingers were the first to bring story to the forefront of cirque, and they’ve only perfected it since. Character and intention are never an afterthought; every action, and every stunt has its own characterization. A simple backflip can, in the bodies of these artists, mean anything from sleepless anxiety to exhilaration. Every beat has its own emotion. Every moment is intentional, curated. Every story is human.
On stage, you see a woman who can’t stay put. Sabine’s steps are light, ephemeral as she moves between the members of the cast– she embraces them intimately, then pushes them away. The music, orchestral and grand, seems to mourn her flightiness. It ebbs and flows, sorrowful one moment and celebratory the next, the perfect backdrop to her indecision. Her giant backpack doesn’t hamper her movement as she flits from relationship to relationship. We watch intently as she empties the bag in the blink of an eye. White fabric, soft like bedsheets, streams from the open zipper. It pulls taut as it is lifted up, up, up… and it carries its traveler higher, too.
The silk caresses the acrobat’s skin as she climbs. Her movements evoke strain, desperation, and striving for something she can’t reach. Then the twisted fabric tightens, and she falls. She plummets downward, seemingly uncontrolled. The primal, collective gasp of the audience is a delight– their fear becomes awe, her despair becomes determination. She catches herself mere moments from the ground, sets her jaw, and begins again. In between the drama and the sorrow, you find moments of glee. The frenetic foot traffic of the train station couples with the joy of the first-time traveler: expressed by hula hoops and feats of flexibility, a woman in love whirls her way along the platform. The upbeat, jazz-standard-esque music perfectly matches her grin. Scenes later, you find joy in the sparkle of a man’s eyes as he relays his tale of crossing borders, and you clap in delight as he grows bored and begins to juggle.
The exuberance foils the tragedy, lending impact, gravity, and tenor until it hits… well, like a train. This is what Passengers does so remarkably well. Through skilled acrobatics and orchestra, it displays the spectrum of human experience. Shana Caroll’s artistic vision builds as the actors put to stage highs and lows, losses and triumphs–and ultimately, the truth. In life, there isn’t a thing you can change. With so much verve and intimate spectacle that the audience is left reeling, the show provides an outlet for healing. This metaphorical train ride is joyful yet tragic, full of interconnectedness, and still so lonely. The world is so wide, and yet, so small.