Abrons Art Center: “Screen Test”.

Screen Test is director and visual artist Rob Roth’s latest multi-disciplinary work, currently on show at the Lower East Side’s Abrons Art Center. The piece is a one-hour long eerie, haunting, and sometimes tickling performance that takes place in the nightmarish apocalyptic setting of a post-nuclear-holocaust scenario. It’s hard to describe exactly what happens during this concentrated hour: the star of the show is Theo Kogan, founder of the rock band Theo and the Skyscrapers. Kogan plays at once a composite of genteel divas from 1950’s Hollywood (Marlyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor are evoked in her performance and in the projections on her white dress), and a loud and screaming punk rock singer backed by a guitarist, a drummer, a bass player, and even a cello player.

Unfortunately, and probably because English is my second language, I often had a hard time understanding the lyrics of Kogan’s songs. It is particularly unfortunate as the lyrics make up most of the text in the piece (apart from the disturbing and demanding requests made by the off stage voices of the presumed directors of Kogan’s performance who remind her that she really needs to “nail it” in order for the show to “sell”). In a particularly touching scene, however, I was able to follow Kogan’s words. After the “generators” fail and Kogan is lit by her crew holding up flashlights, her singing slows down, becomes more intelligible, and we hear her sing: “no one speaks of what is worse, to bleed or turn to stone. I’d rather fade away”.

The show brings up images of nuclear explosions and radiation exposure, combined with shots of Marilyn Monroe and other acting female icons from the 1950’s. Screen Test is as much about the damage of a hypothetical nuclear holocaust as it is about the pressure to perform and entertain. Is a film being made? A music video? What about the suffering and pain surrounding the show’s star? As the directors speak of “takes”, we are left baffled by the priorities in this apocalyptic world. The moments of staged rage and general craze are some of the least appealing in the performance: the volume of the music is not loud enough to be as powerful as it wants to be, and the performers’ bodies are too in control to give off the energy of actual distress. The piece is most successful when the layering of sound, projections and live acting creates images and moods otherwise impossible to achieve. The screens behind the performers are placed at an angle, so that the projections seem to mirror each other and produce an organic-like symmetry that makes the images look alive, and the bodies of the performers are often used as screens in themselves. It was particularly striking when the naked torso of a skinny man wearing a gas mask was projected with glowing rib-like shapes, changing him into a pulsing insect-like creature filled with light.

Overall, the haunting atmosphere created in Screen Test perfectly fits the mood of this Halloween weekend (it will only play through November 2, with an extra performance on Friday night at 10pm). It feels like the large cast for the piece greatly enjoys spooking their audience, the performers looking as gruesome and pale as they can master. The music in the piece is fun and the Butoh inspired choreography is a great match to the apocalyptic setting. This short and well-timed performance is visually powerful and brings together genres that speak with each other in disturbing harmony. Leaving the theater last night I felt strangely uplifted, this vision of horror, pain and confusion so theatrical as to continuously reassure me of its artificiality, while the poetry of its images and sounds lingered with me through the rest of the evening.

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