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"Nufonia Must Fall" at the Hult Center, Eugene, April 22, 2016

Eugene audiences were treated last night to “Nufonia Must Fall”, a multi-disciplinary collaboration between turntablist/graphic novelist Kid Koala (aka Eric San) and filmmaker KK Barrett, featuring the stunning Afiara String quartet, and a host of puppeteers, camera operators, sound and technical directors. (More on them later.)

            Before the performance in the Silva hall began, audience members were down front, taking a peek at what was to unfold: Tiny sets, like little shoebox-sized dollhouse rooms, littered the stage, with cameras and lights set up around them. Here and there, little puppets could be spotted, one to ten inches high. A full deejay kit loomed next to four music stands and accompanying chairs. Above, a movie screen. What the heck is going to happen?

            After a brief game of Nufonia bingo as a warm-up, Sans chatted with the crowd about the origin of the word “Nufonia” – Essentially, it’s a city of “No Fun.” (“That’s not Eugene though, right?” Sans quipped to wild applause.)

            “So we’re gonna do this movie now, in one take,” Sans says.

            “Nufonia Must Fall” is a full-length film, in three acts, performed live, with live accompaniment. That would be tricky enough, and it’s been done. But what’s happening here is something altogether new: A bevy of ninja puppeteers zoom to the set for the next film shot, light it, get their puppet in place, the camera rolls, and voila: A little scene unfolds, and the movie gets projected on the big screen.

            The narrative follows the life of a little earphone-wearing robot, who looks like a stack of marshmallows, as he tries his robot hand at a series of dead end jobs. (He’s continually being sacked, replaced by the faster, more efficient HexBot 9000…)

            But the robot meets a girl, Malorie, and the film takes a different path. It’s a simple love story, after all, and with its monochromatic set and characters, is reminiscent of the great romantic movies of the 1930’s and 40’s. (I wished my grandparents could have seen it. They would have loved it.)

            If you’re lucky enough to sit up close to the stage, you can see the artistic tricks that translate onto the screen transpiring in real time: A revolving carousel of mini storefronts, for example, transforms on camera, giving the illusion that the robot is walking down the street. Snow falls from a sifter; rain is a sheet of plastic with raindrops etched into it.

            “Nufonia” creates an intersection between classical music – the Afiara quartet is a wonder, not only providing gorgeous, lush music, but voicing the movement of the robot himself, all his squeaks and whirs – and the dj booth, between live performance, and film.

            Gesturally, the robot and his love interest communicate everything, with the tilt of a head, the fall of a chest, or the proud swagger of a robot on a mission to deliver a mixed tape to his new girlfriend.

            We learn these cues before we ever learn words: the visual representation of the face and the body clues us into the full range of human emotion, and here Sans, Barrett - and their incredibly talented team - have taken the leap between our earliest and most vital understanding of feelings, and embodied them in this tiny world made of paper and resin and ink.

            The results are nothing short of magical.