Disruptive Cuteness

Photo by Maria Baranova

While in attendance at Milo Cramer’s Cute Activist (running through February 3rd at the Bushwick Starr), you may find yourself attempting to judge whether or not this is a play about you, at least if you’re within the general range of identifying as a millennial. (I’m on the borderline but I’m opting in because it’s nice to pretend companies still think you’re their target consumer.) How you self-identify within Milo’s skewed bizarro-land of privileged youth (his almost-romantic protagonists, Jen who is 26 and Gil who is 22, both attended a kindergarten with a 6% acceptance rate) and their churning need to self-diagnosis and rationalize their experience and existence and life choices may have an outsized effect on how you’re able to receive the show at large. Is it exasperating or exhilarating? Kind of like if the downtown artists Young Jean Lee and Little Lord collaborated on an episode of Girls. Would that be of interest to you? If you’re younger than 40, how could it not?

I ran into Milo at a recent holiday party. I told him that I was planning on seeing his play and writing about it. He said, “I hope you write something really bad.” This is exactly what one would expect Milo to say, and something that one of his characters would probably also say. A number of Milo’s plays that I’ve previously encountered find ways to stage his internal monologues that accuse and recuse himself simultaneously for feeling a certain way about a thing that society (at its superficial surface level) tells him he should feel differently about. Any one of his characters, at any given point in any of his works, could easily say “Am I a bad person?” without derailing the action. To some extent, Cute Activist feels like something of a departure from this type of internalized personal immolation; there is an external plot (sort of) and a collage of performance effects (music, puppets, video screens that surround the playing space) and at least two characters that it feels like we’re supposed to care about (a couple who live in a hovel of an apartment that is to be knocked down and replaced by a high-rise being designed by one of our protagonists). Yet I suspect it functions in a similarly neurotic fashion, in that it’s an unpacking and repacking of how it feels to feel like you’re not actually good enough, while simultaneously craving to be called out on being bad. But no, Milo, I’m not going to write a bad review. I’m not even going to write a review. I’m writing this instead.

Morgan Green (the director), Milo Cramer, and Madeline Wise are the main three members of a theater company called New Saloon. Cute Activist is a co-production between Bushwick Starr and New Saloon in association with Clubbed Thumb (part of the new world order in which everyone pitches with the co-producing part, which deserves its own feature-length article in terms of how that works). New Saloon’s website notes that they are interested in “embracing social media and our smartphones as new platforms for thinking and playing.” This feels relevant with regards to Cute Activist and its position towards activism, which is apparently a forbidden word in the Connecicut town the play takes place in. The characters speak in a hyper-inarticulate lingo that sounds like a hybrid between texting and actually talking, a pseudo-mythic babbling with little-to-no affinity to the term ‘economy of language.’ To some extent, being at the play is like scrolling through six people’s social media pages at the same time and reading all the clever cute ways they’ve attempted to find a brand – what kind of activist are you? Do you care more about police brutality or economic inequality? Do you post about #metoo? Does this play want me to ‘like’ it or to ‘crying face’ it? What is this exchange, really? Is it okay that it feels kind of icky, like too cute? Is that part of its appeal, actually?

When I go back and read the script, I wonder if Cute Activist reminds me less of Young Jean Lee and more of Chuck Mee. Like a Big Love for the second-wave activist-as-a-brand generation. I think this mostly because of the play’s tendency to step outside of itself and deliver first-person statements that reveal the characters inner desires and motivations, and because it structurally resembles a magical morality play if it were crossed with the plot of a christmas movie.

There is music, composed (and often sung) by composer and vocal arranger Deepali Gupta. The music appears to have several functions in the work. There is a mythic element to the play itself (a mouse, a deer, and a bluebird all appear to deliver vital plot-point messages to various characters), and the musical components are introduced through these dream sequences – this approach makes sense dramaturgically, and is rendered in a dreamy pop-synth fashion, reminiscent of Tina Satter’s Ghost Rings maybe. But also, at one point, both Gil (played by Ronald Peet) and Jen (company member Madeline Wise) break out in song, during a lunchtime date. Here, it appears to function emotionally, in that way that some people start singing when they get nervous. This moment is also, it appears, the closest these two will get to finding a common ground upon which to build a relationship. The style is more aligned with musical theater here; Gil sings a song that wouldn’t be out of place in Little Shop of Horrors, if he were standing in (and singing in) for Ellen Greene’s Audrey regarding Home Gardens Magazine. But singing in a regular voice, not Ellen Greene’s voice. (Sidebar: Ronald Peet has a really excellent voice.)

David Greenspan plays a Janitor as well as the main villain whose name is Landlorde (the e is silent), and a mardi-gra-masked dog-resenting activist. His presence, along with Elizabeth Kenny’s, who plays one of the two apartment holdouts, complicates what would otherwise be a uniformly youthful cast. On the one hand, their performances are outstanding, grounded in a slightly different way than the rest. On the other hand, there is a tension of aesthetic – Greenspan is, as always, a warped genius and gets more than almost anyone else out of the most innocuous bit of text, and so it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what’s actually happening, especially when he’s on stage.

I wonder about the weight of the gesture of the play. Specially, the gesture (which I’m using as a stand-in for ‘what the plays does’) of Cute Activist could be to question what drives a person to become an activist, and what effect that has on themselves, their friends, their community. The gesture could also be, how will these two oddball upper-middle-class kids get together in order to save the town? Or it could be on the effects of gentrification, or the risks of trying to decolonize oneself by dating someone of a different race, or it could be about redefining and questioning masculinity (through Gil’s desire to be a caregiver, and I suppose through Landlorde’s uncompromising desire to consolidate power). One could argue that the play makes all of those gestures, which is a lot of nonverbal communication to keep up with, especially if you’re just trying to keep up with the language. For my money, the most controversial (and definitively stated) moment of the play occurs when David Greenspan’s activist character goes off on dogs, accusing them (in all caps) of being status symbols in disguise as relationships. For just a moment, the play stops and the audience breathes, divided, wondering what will happen next. He doesn’t like dogs?! Another of the activists, after a shocked moment, replies “I think that dogs are um really really cute and disrupt otherwise oppressive spaces with their cuteness,” which also feels like a gesture of the play – disruption via cuteness.

But if I’m more willing to invest in a discussion about the privilege surrounding dog ownership than in the larger debate surrounding privileged activism and whether or not (and how) to be an activist…?

Am I a bad person?

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