I'm super excited about a play (or a sort of hand-performance) and film I just saw, both of which suggest how a grand-scale, even epic story can be told in miniature.
First, "Flooding With Love for the Kid," a 2009 micro-budget film adaptation of the novel "First Blood," which was the inspiration for the Rambo movies. Zachary Oberzan designed, shot, edited and directed the whole thing by himself. More unusual is the fact that he also plays all two dozen roles himself -- everyone from a waitress, to a police chief, to the drifter he arrests and who then breaks free, to the police dogs and people who go searching for him, and others. The real kicker, however, is that the film was shot entirely in his 220-square-foot New York City apartment. On a budget of under $100. Oberzan employs a bluescreen to create certain backgrounds, but effectively uses lighting, sound effects, and simple props to suggest a forest (sticks strewn about, or affixed to a floor lamp), a diner (sounds of silverware clinking against plates), or, most remarkably, a helicopter chasing Rambo off a cliff (a window fan turning some makeshift helicopter blades, with two chairs in front for the pilot and cop, and Oberzan's loft bed filling in for the cliff). I was impressed by Oberzan's design solutions, but even more so by the fact that the film actually worked as drama -- aside from a few parts that dragged, I found myself invested in the action.
No less so than by "Space Panorama," a kind of hand-play created and performed by Andrew Dawson. Dressed in black and standing in front of a table draped in black cloth and tilted towards the audience, Dawson tells the story of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing -- using only his hands and upper torso, with narration and a musical score from Shostakovich's 10th Symphony played over the theatre's sound system. It makes perfect sense that Dawson was trained in mime, and also works (or moonlights, you might say) as a hand model. He creates some thoroughly cinematic effects with those magic fingers of his. In one such scene, he switches back and forth between "close-ups" and "wide shots" of the rocket launch. Close-ups were done by gesturing dramatically to indicate the massive rocket lifting off, and sweeping his hands wildly against the tabletop to suggest the explosion of smoke and flame as the propulsion units fire; the wide shots he achieved by forming a triangle with his fingers to indicate the rocket tip, which he has move through space just slowly enough to indicate vast distances. With the simplest gestures, he indicates a whale, or the splash-down of the astronauts back on Earth. He lip-synchs JFK's pledge to put a man on the moon, puts on a cartoonish smile to play the role of a bus driver transporting the astronauts to the Apollo 11, or leans back and flips a few imaginary switches to assume the role of an astronaut at the control panel. (That piece was commissioned more than 20 years ago, but he still performs it occasionally. Check out the links above for more info.)
In both cases, these performers used tiny spaces and limited movement to convey the grandest actions. And, except for some neat editing tricks used for the film, they're both excellent examples of how to use low-tech effects. More proof that whole worlds -- to say nothing of moons -- can fit inside our hands, our apartments, or these heads of ours that are no bigger than a gallon jug of milk.