A Week in Openings: Witness Relocation, Toni Dove & Wakka Wakka’s “Baby Universe”

From Toni Dove's Spectropia

ctrOne of the first shows I went to after moving to New York was Witness Relocation‘s production of the English translation of Toshiki Okada’s Five Days in March at La Mama, and the cast was nice enough to invite me out afterwards for opening night drinks, so I harbor a soft spot for Dan Safer & co. They were my introduction to New York theatre. But what’s more, I was fascinated by the play itself, having seen the original production by Okada’s company chelfitsch a year and some before on tour in Seattle.

If there was a problem with Witness Relocation’s version, it’s that the play (through no fault of their own) suffered in English translation in an odd and unpredictable way: rendered into a language the American audience could understand, the hipster speech of the characters became the focus, and was endlessly commented on by critics who couldn’t seem to look past it for what the show was actually trying to accomplish. As a non-Japanese speaker, when I saw chelfitch’s version, I certainly got a sense of how they were talking (the actors delivered their lines like they were telling a story in a bar; even though you only knew what they said not how they said it, the affect was obvious), but was able to otherwise focus on what was happening.

If a lot of art strives to make sense of the complexity of the world by treating it like an onion, to peeled away layer by layer in search of the truth, than Five Days in March does the reverse: the show takes a diced-up onion and reassembles it piece by piece (it’s fitting that the climactic moment of the show–the invasion of Iraq–takes place on the third of the titular five days), building out the layers in brief segments that don’t properly connect, or come in fragmentary bursts. The show is not some indictment of the ineffectuality of youth, and some people seem to think. It’s an ambitious attempt to link the quotidian lives of everyday people, who normally experience history as spectators, to world historical events.

Just as the lives of the characters in the show come to overlap the lives of the actors playing them (for instance, at one point an actor performs a line telling another character where a subway stop is, then breaks character and says, “Oh, I didn’t know that”), so too would the lives of the affectless Shibuya hiptsters the play follows come to connect–through some degrees of separation–with those of the American soldiers pouring into Iraq, the foreign fighters preparing for a jihad-driven insurgency, and eventually even to the leaders and decision-makers and all the other actors driving the world-historical drama unfolding as a backdrop to a story that’s otherwise about pop culture and anonymous hook-ups. Aesthetic style aside, there’s a great deal of commonality between Okada’s play and Sarah Kane’s Crave, in that both are drawing links between the small dramas of our everyday lives and the bigness of war.

Interestingly, there’s a thematic link between Five Days in March and I’m Going to Make a Small Incision Behind Your Ear to Check and See If You’re Actually Human, Witness Relocation’s new show, which opened this week at the Bushwick Starr (through Dec. 18; tickets $15). If the former presented chaos and complexity through a carefully constructed, multilayered text, then the latter invites it in through sheer randomness.

When I took my seat mere moments before the show began, the wall at downstage-right was already covered in carefully ordered pieces of paper, each laying out the topic of a scene. It was only when I read Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s review that I fully understood how the operation was conducted that put them up: as the audience entered, each was invited by Dan Safer to choose a pingpong ball that corresponded to a scene; the order of selection determined the order of scenes for the evening. So instead of beginning with an introduction from the managers of the Bushwich Starr (that came about halfway through), we started with the cast assembling themselves in a line and trying to make themselves cry. One man started slapping himself hard in the face. Or biting his hand. Another squeezed onion into his eye. And within a few minutes, indeed, the stage was filled seven weeping performers. And then the show kicked off.

If there’s one problem I’ve always had with works that rely on so much chance and improv to structure themselves, it’s that in the end, they never really manage a dramatic arc. They become a series of vignettes, with no climax to the evening. They just end. And while that is sort of the case here, Witness Relocation largely makes up for it with their balls-to-the-walls intensity, the performance far more radically anarchistic than a chance gambit to determine the order of the show’s scenes. It’s funny, occasionally a little shocking, but definitely worth the trip out to Bushwick. In both shows, complexity and random connections are deeply linked to human experience, referenced in Witness Relocation’s rather long title for their new show. The proof of humanity is the eating of the messy, messy, pudding, shall we say.

Chance and remix als figure prominent in video/performance artist Toni Dove‘s Spectropia, a “live mix” film, which opened last night at the Kitchen and plays through Saturday (tickets $15).

Spectropia is, at its heart, just a film, not so different from any other: a hybrid sci-fi/noir set in a future England, in which history is banned as a function of radically late capitalism, which demands constant consumption. Spectropia is a young woman searching for her father, who’s disappeared back in time (sort of), having built a machine that can scan historical bric-a-brac and artificially generate the historical impression it made. Trick is, scan yourself along with it, and you can scan yourself i to what’s either a compelling simulacrum or potentially history itself.

The plot revolves around Spectropia’s search for her father, which leads her to 1931 New York, where he was desperately trying to uncover the family’s lost inheritance. I won’t give away the story other than to say that water figures prominently, making it almost a cyberpunk Chinatown, minus all the incest.

The film-performance is projected on three large screens, with Dove and her collaborator R. Luke DuBois controlling the affair from a bank of computers and other tech gear upstage-right. The Spectropia film is concentrated on the larger center screen, while the smaller screens to left and right shift between a live feed of DuBois and Dove, alternate shots of the film, or sometimes expanding the scale of the same shot across all three.

In addition to the computers, the film is controlled by mixers that Dove and DuBois manipulate like a theremin wand. Hand movements can slow, reverse, or speed up the film in one of the simplest and most obvious mix techniques employed. Additionally, two of the characters in the film, William (Richard Bekins), a double-crosser from 1931, and Sally (Helen Pickett) a burlesque dancer famous for her bubble routine, can directly address the audience. This is accomplished videographically by representing through a series of extremely short clips, allowing them a variety of expressions and a series of facial movements for when they “speak.” The result is a stuttery, cut-up effect. As for the dialogue, insofar as I understand it, it was accomplished through a computer program that emulated (possibly through the actors recording words) their voices, based on a simple text-to-speech program.

Thematically, the film’s cut-up, lix-mix actualization relates to the story it tells in much the same way as Witness Relocation’s show: complexity is a function of potentiality, and Spectropia‘s spelunking expedition into the past–a mystery story that reveals something about the present–reveals a multiplicity of potential outcomes that could have occurred, which nicely dovetails with the fact that each screening of the film itself is a unique live performance, distinct from every other. And in the end, it’s just plain cool to watch. Highly recommended.

And finally, on a completely different note, last Saturday took us up to Baruch College for the opening of Wakka Wakka‘s newest puppet show, Baby Universe (through January 9; tickets $20-$30). While the story takes its inspiration from real concepts in contemporary physics, Baby Universe is primarily a story told in emotional and human terms, and realized as one of the more stunning puppet spectacles I’ve had the chance to see.

Set in a future in which the sun is dying, humanity (or the last dismal dregs of it) lives deep underground in bunkers awaiting a seemingly inevitable fate. Scientists, desperate for a solution, have been creating “baby universes,” realized as adorable little black-hole dolls, who, should they develop, could create an entire new universe, complete with a new earth and a new sun, and offer salvation for humanity.

Each baby is tended by a mother-figure nurse (there are many baby universes; most don’t survive), and the story quickly establishes itself as mother-son love story in which the child will ultimately have to make a great sacrifice for the sake of love. The plot is rounded out by a villainous cast of plenatary (and other astronomical bodies) avatars, all in the service of the dying Sun, who, in his despair, is desperate to take humanity down with him.

This is all realized in stunning fashion, Wakka Wakka having run amok with models, puppets, lighting, and actors performing on a mutable set that’s constantly transforming. You spend the roughly 90-minute run-time of the show enraptured by the amazing thing unfolding before you. Of special note was the Sun himself, a nearly ten-foot-tall figure in bedraggled clothes, lobster red (and operated, it turned out, by one of the smallest members of the cast). Wakka Wakka’s founders Gabriel Brechner, Kirjan Waage, and Gwendolyn Warrock have done a fantastic job.

On a final note, I have to point out that description aside, Baby Universe is not exactly a kid’s show (though plenty of slightly older children would love it). While it’s not nearly as dark as their previous show, FABRIK: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, set during the Holocaust, Baby Universe still asks some very difficult questions about exactly what we’re doing to our planet, which resonates in environmental terms even if that’s not part of the show’s plot. The impact of environmental degradation, and what it means for our planet to become inhospitable to human life, are brought in frequently terrifying terms through a radio program broadcasting from “the darkest corner of the bunkers,” with suggestions of despair, suicide, and cannibalism. And it speaks to the company’s willingness to ask hard questions that this serves as Baby Universe‘s denouement, even as the story technically has a happy–if somewhat bittersweet–ending.

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