Bonanza : A documentary for five screens
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
January 8, 2011
Part documentary, part theatre, Bonanza is a striking portrait of a community on the verge of collapse. Devised by multimedia collective Berlin, it’s a thought-provoking, if not entirely successful, exploration of human nature.
Bonanza is, at its heart, a documentary about the people of Bonanza, the smallest town in Colorado. At the time of filming, there were only seven full-time residents. (Even the mayor didn’t live there year round—she drove in from her main home three hours away.) At first glance, Bonanza seems like paradise. The residents appear to be an endearing if eccentric bunch who keep to themselves. They revel in the beauty of the nature, hiking up to the mountains, gazing at the river from their windows, talking to hummingbirds in their backyards. They recall the town’s origins as a gold rush town and point to the thin traces of gold still visible in the rocks. The recently widowed Mary laughingly explains the town’s name. “Miners would say they hit the Bonanza if they got a big gold or silver strike. That never happened here.”
Look a little closer, though, and cracks begin to show. Mary isn’t speaking to newcomers Darva and Shikiah, who had her arrested for indecent exposure. Longtime residents Gail and Ed gripe that Bonanza’s mayor isn’t there full time. Loner Mark quotes the Bible, derides Mary’s tarot cards, and retreats to a hillside to think. Richard, a priest who spends part of the week with his parish in a neighboring town, chuckles at the gossip but keeps his distance. Then, when someone brings a lawsuit against the town, its very existence is threatened. Paradise might be lost. “Tell me what paradise is—it doesn’t exist. It’s just a fantasy of humanity,” Mark morosely observes.
The presentation amplifies the documentary’s power. Program notes describe Bonanza as a “Holocene.” This form, developed by the Berlin collective, shows multiple perspectives at once. In the case of Bonanza, the documentary is projected across five screens simultaneously while a scale model of the town hangs above. You’re constantly seeing the town from multiple perspectives—aerial views, close-ups, pans, and the model recreation. The screens show five different shots at once, or the same shot filmed seconds apart. Sometimes, one or more screens will show a whole landscape while another shows a close-up. It’s a dazzling concept built on past innovations in the field. (To use a pop culture comparison, if you ever saw the multiple-screen documentary preceding the dinosaur ride at the old “Universe of Energy” at Epcot Center, imagine that on a smaller scale, add emotional complexity, and you’ll get the idea).
Bonanza isn’t purely film, of course, it’s a “theatre-film event” per the Under the Radar brochure. The theatre part comes in with the scale model. Created by Koen De Ceuleneer, it re-creates the Bonanza of the documentary in miraculous tiny detail (on a tin foil base!). The windows of each house light up from within, and the entire model is lit dramatically with spotlights at key emotional moments The model’s kitschy, homespun literalness contrasts sharply with the slick, lush realism of the film being screened below. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition of images, but it’s just that—a juxtaposition that remains static, almost as if Ken Burns screened a documentary on multiple screens beneath a highly detailed fifth grade diorama for no clear reason. To fully resonate as theatre, the idea needs to be explored further.
Nevertheless, Bonanza haunts the imagination. Without being condescending to its subjects, it follows the story of seven individuals whose petty squabbles threaten to destroy the very paradise they’ve sought to build.