A Week in Reviews

A scene from Gob Squad's "Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good)". Photo by David Baltzer.

Gob Squad‘s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) (Under the Radar; closed). If there’s one show that’s already played over the last week that’s generated real buzz, it’s Gob Squad. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked with has had nothing but praise for the London-Berlin based company’s take on Warhol’s filmic work, and for good reason: it’s an amazing piece that, pace Viktor Shklovsky, makes Warhol Warholian again.

As the audience entered the Ellen Stewart Theater at La Mama, they were led first through the maze of a set, past a small bedroom set-up and the eponymous kitchen and a maze of cameras and lighting until they finally find themselves seated, staring at a big blank screen. Once the show starts, three simultaneous projections re-create, as a live performance, three of Andy Warhol’s iconic film projects: at left, Sleep (1963), the five-plus-hour film of someone sleeping (originally John Giorno); center, Kitchen (1965), which featured a cast of Factory regulars indulging in a typical evening of mid-sixties Manhattan debauchery in their kitchen; and right, one of Warhol’s famous screen tests.

Gob Squad provides a performing cast of four, as well as the technical crew who pull off the live video feeds and lighting. At the beginning, core member Sean Patten is holding down screen test position, with Bastian Trost and Simon Will occupying the kitchen, and Sharon Smith (if I’m not mistaken–I might have the wrong collaborator there), looking more than a bit like Edie Sedgwick, sleeping.

The trick with the show is that at the beginning, you get the impression that Gob Squad is really just taking the piss out of the iconography of the Sixties. Simon Will’s opening monologue is too sincere to be serious: this is Andy Warhol’s Kitchen, he explains ecstatically–a film just about people doing whatever people did in 1965, right before everything happens, from women’s lib to the anti-war movement to gay rights to…well…just everything! All conveniently summed up in one seemingly pointless Warhol joint in which his coked-up cast frequently abandons the script to just lounge about being their superstar selves (hell, one of them invented the term).

But what’s amazing–and why Gob Squad has generated so much buzz–is that what happens over the next roughly two hours is an incredible shift in perspective. One by one, following a series of self-declared failures to actually re-create the vibe of the films, the performers replace themselves with members of the audience. And in the process, they bring to life what are otherwise just pages of art history. Watching a random woman from the audience sitting, unemotional, in medium close-up–just some person–actually captures the urgency of the screen tests that you hear about but never really get seeing them in a museum setting.

Sleep never exactly takes off, but when Sharon re-enacts Kiss (1963)–another Warhol experiment in which couples simply kissed on screen for about three minutes each (a transgression of cinematic custom dating back to the Hollywood code)–the result is amazing. And finally, with the four performers comfortably seated in the audience and feeding directions to their replacements in hushed whispers over headsets, as you watch the replacement cast on screen, lounging about the kitchen set, cracking open beers to congratulate themselves for having done a good job, you finally get the magic that Warhol saw.

It’s an experience that’s hard to put into words, and sad that it only played for a four showings, but I’d be deeply surprised if audiences didn’t have another chance to see this rather incredible company again in the near future.

Ranters Theatre, Holiday (COIL Festival, PS122; through Jan. 15). PS122 describes this little two-person show from Australia as a “gentle provocation.” I’m not sure how that works. While the performances by Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt are extremely accomplished, I actually found myself of a split mind as to what to make of the show when it was done: either it never went anywhere deep or serious at all, or it really took itself too seriously. Either way, I just couldn’t convince to like it.

Basically, the show is an hour-and-a-half of small talk, which is interesting enough I suppose. The two actors lounge about an absurdist set, with the usual accountrements of a lanai arranged a shallow inflatable wading pool. One of the actors is ready for a day at the beach, shirtless and in shorts. The other is in jeans and a t-shirt still. But the soundscore reinforces a constantly shifting setting: sometimes it’s beach sounds, other times the sounds of a busy road, or under a flight-path (if I recall). In other words, it’s nowhere real, but all vaguely vacation-y.

The conversations unfold with a Beckettian logic: they’re talking because they have to, because they can’t really stand the silence. But rather than philosophically provocative polysemy, the dialogue shifts from random anecdotes to comments on music to pretty much anything and everything you might randomly discuss with a chance companion at an airport bar. Every 20 minutes or so, one of the characters randomly breaks into song. Towards the end, a video shows a boat crossing the horizon.

But it doesn’t ever go anywhere. I don’t think. Towards the end, it sort of felt as though something was being hinted at: one of the characters keeps mentioning the other looks tired, and the frequent pauses between bouts of conversation do take a sort of pregnant tension that, maybe just because I wanted it to go somewhere, felt vaguely menacing. Is this purgatory as a vacation that doesn’t end? Or is that just how it makes me feel watching it?

2boys.tv, Phobophilia (Under the Radar, Here’s Culturemart; through Mon., Jan. 10). The Canadian duo 2boys.tv are capable of some cool effects, but attending the performance of Phobophilia on Sunday, I had the feeling I was watching a work by visual artists who were dabbling in more traditional time-based performance: an overreliance on concept and an under-delivery of results.

Audience members assemble in the lobby of Here Arts Center and are led in groups of six to the performance in another part of the building, where they’re blindfolded before being led into the performance space. This, in particular, made no sense to me, since when it was removed, I simply found myself standing in a theatre, left to seat myself, with a hooded man standing on top of a box onstage with his arms held out to either side in a stress posture familiar from photos of Abu Ghraib abuses.

What unfolds from there is technically pretty cool: is a live performance of a pop-up book impressively realized with the help of video, and as such it’s a sort of miniature theatre that’s an increasingly interesting performance field these days. But in terms of the content of what unfolds, I struggled to find much more in it than a rehash of inconic love stories set in a time of war, conveniently rendered in a black and white aesthetic with ethically troubles me as an act of historicization. In fact, beginning with a reference to a rather recent and galling war crime only to shift into a familiar hazy mode of old movies begs the question of what the actual project was trying to accomplish. Whatever the case, despite the physical proximity of the performance, it didn’t seem to accomplish what I assume was the goal of intimacy and therefore complicity in the act. Sadly, a rather disappointing show.

Fitzgerald & Stapleton, The Work The Work (Center for Performance Research). The Irish contemporary dance duo of Emma Fitzgerald and Aine Stapleton returned to present their piece The Work The Work, which was commissioned by The Chocolate Factory last year.

The two have worked with choreographer Deborah Hay in the past, and it shows. The piece itself is amalgam of text, movement, and video. Their choreography is based less in traditional dance technique (though both studied dance) and more in the idea of “presence,” of occupying space and commanding attention. Their vocabulary is a mixture of natural movement, generative-expressive content, and architectural division of space. (As they explained, several choreographers contributed movement to the piece through an invitational collaborative effort on their part.)

I have to admit, although some of the movement was richly allusive, other parts left me baffled. But there were certainly enough moments which packed a punch to demonstrate why the pair have generated so much discussion. The work is described as a debate about “the interplay of individuality, power, capitalism and gender within current Irish society,” but it struck me as more the experience of the same, the “debate” part coming out through the process of performance.

The most affecting moment of the piece was a simple text-based interlude. With Stapleton seated upstage facing the wall, her back to the audience, Fitzgerald, from off-stage, read the transcript of an interview she’d conducted with Stapleton. Delivered in an uninflected monotone, the answers are shockingly revealing, ranging from Stapleton’s own thoughts on finances and her relationship with money to her personal relationship with her father to her dating life, one-night-stands with guys in relationships, her feelings on make-up and her appearance, and so on.

What emerges, then, is a document of the relationship of the individual to her society, which seems to be what the two are seeking to evoke throughout the piece. Ireland has undergone massive changes over the past few decades, racing at breakneck speed into a global capitalist future only to face national bankruptcy. The stresses, social and interpersonal, drive the way in which these two have created their piece. And all I can say is that the mechanical, completely un-erotic masturbation scene isn’t saying anything good about what’s up with the Emerald Isle these days.

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