Builders Association & Gob Squad at UTR

From Gob Squad's "Super Night Shot." Photo by Prudence Upton

This is sort of a weird review to write, because I don’t actually have too much to say about either one of these. You want my elevator trip length take?: Gob Squad is awesome, whereas Builders Association’s Sontag: Reborn is complicated, with a compelling character inhabiting a not fully realized piece.

The Builders Association is a company known as a tech/video company, and that comes with some baggage. In discussions with others (and this piece generated either strongly negative or guardedly positive takes, insofar as I’ve seen), a lot of people seem to be asking the question: Why video? I’m not sure that’s the right one to ask. Video is incidental to this piece; the point is to interrogate the narrative, to add layers of meaning and perspective in dialogue with one another. But that’s precisely the piece’s weakness–it doesn’t quite pull that off.

Based on Susan Sontag’s diaries, the show (through Jan. 15; tickets $20) is essentially a solo live performance by Moe Angelos, who performs Sontag from the age of 15 until around 30, narrating from Sontag’s own diary text. Her performance is mediated by the video installation, mainly in the form of opposing Angelos’ in situ performance with an aged and chain-smoking Sontag reflecting upon her earlier self. The problem is, these two never really achieve a complex dialogue. In fact, I felt like the video Sontag essentially disappeared by the end of piece, leaving us mainly with Angelos’s live performance and begging the question of why they’re bothering with the counterpoint at all. In fact, the video elements become too filmic by the end, in the sense of mainstream cinema biopics (the final sequence at the close is wholly unnecessary). The central motif is reproductions of Sontag’s handwritten text from the diaries, which is a weird choice. I get it in the sense that this is the story of Sontag as a writer, so the writing is important. But this is painfully literal (something Sontag the critic would have cringed at).

It’s cool, in one sense, but it actually begs a question that the show doesn’t really address: Sontag’s diaries as the self-conscious efforts of a writer trying to “write” herself. It’s a textualization of identity. So…why have a person inhabit those words? To mock Sontag’s overwhelming self-consciousness is apparently the only reason. We know her high self-regard is ridiculous, but the show both wants us to take it seriously at the same time it wants us to laugh at a precocious teenager’s self-regard. Weird and unresolved.

However, the show is saved by Sontag herself. She’s self-absorbed, self-regarding, obsessed with her own sense of self-importance, and so loveable. I saw myself in that person, obsessed with her books and desperate to assert her own sense of self-importance (with the crucial difference that Sontag was immensely smarter and more talented than I was). You learn to love Sontag through the text, and that says something. The only problem is that the Builders buy into Sontag’s own self-mythology; the crucial arc of the play is to get her to the publication of her first novel, which she saw as actualizing. Of course, the truth is Sontag was a shitty novelist but an amazing thinker. Anyone hoping that this piece might connect the dots between her life and the amazing essays (“Against Interpretation” and “Notes on Camp” were foundational for me and inform the critic I am today) she wrote will be disappointed. As much as they pretend to engage the writer’s own vision of herself, the Builders seem to only understand Sontag through her own words, which is unfortunate and limiting.

As for Gob Squad, well, you knew they were going to be awesome, right? Their Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), was the hit of January last year, and it’s coming back to the Public for a full run (at much higher ticket price–still worth it) later this month. Super Night Shot isn’t as good, but it’s still a fun and a bravura performance. The conceit is that one hour before curtain, four members (including the adorable Bastian Trost) set out each operating a video camera, to film an hour-long movie within three blocks of the theater. No cuts, no edits. They’re running through the lobby in their underwear while you wait for the house to open. Onstage, the four camera videos are project side-by-side; the only mixing is the audio (four videos you can follow; four soundtracks would be impossible). An attack on the sense of anonymity in contemporary urban life, the work proposes that a person can be a superhero and that anyone walking the streets can be the romantic interest. It’s beautiful, moving, remarkable, and fucking hilarious. I love this company.

Sadly, I doubt you can get tickets, but if you can, do it! Tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m. (tickets).

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