Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Democracy in America

Photo/Yi Zhao


Forget Obama and Hillary -- I want Annie Dorsen answering that phone at 3 in the morning. Proving that it takes a bit of a dictator to successfully run a democracy, Dorsen (who deftly directed Passing Strange) has taken a million (well, okay, 130) disparate voices and melting-potted them into a cool, excitingly unpredictable bit of theater. It's more performance art than theater, but only subjectively -- see Erika M.'s $100 purchase of "Two iconic images from Abu Ghraib enlarged to poster size, one of them captioned 'This is theater,' the other captioned 'This is not theater,' visible throughout the piece." As with the Neo-Futurist's Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, this is sense born -- sometimes forcefully -- out of nonsense, and pure piece of profit, to boot.

The show starts off simply enough, with the three game actors -- Okwui Okpokwasili, Anthony Torn, and Philippa Kaye (and David Neubert, who doesn't appear, but bought a "starring" credit for $100) -- lip-syncing purchased text. There's the political ("Rudy Giuliani?!? He didn't fucking rise to the occasion. (pause) Events stooped . . . literally . . . to his level."), the critical ("Judd Apatow's film Knocked Up is the perfect representation of the complicated inner life of a Modern Woman"), absurdly commercial ("Limited quantities no other coupon instant savings tax staples reserves the right offer non transferable"), and artsy ("I was at a motel by I-80, waiting for my girl to get out of shower when I saw the velvet landscape over the bed, and . . ."), all of which I quote because it is so American. But while such lines continue through the night (including some personal lines -- "Seth Lane, Kyle loves you!"), the show slowly builds from a soundscape into a work of art. The loose interpretations of consumer demands inevitably lead toward comic shortcuts ("Okwui 20 stories high, Tony in her basement" is cleverly done with a shadowy projection), as do straightforward presentations under certain circumstances (Daniel S.'s $5 "rim job" is given to a dinosaur during a $15 conversation "about a toy dinosaur with the first line 'I have a confession to make . . . I'm sexually attracted to you, Dino'").

Of course, the problem with Democracy in America is that it's slick, clever, and commercial, and absolutely nothing else, which is sort of a statement about the sort of theater that gets produced when money is creativity's bottom line. It's ADD as entertainment, and for all the fiercely directed moments, such as a high-stakes game of Russian roulette (pantomimed with a single, ominous bullet), there are plenty of moments -- "One performer on top of the others, with the text 'Ilan Bachrach is a sex god'" that have no room to maneuver, whether they're done with puppets or not. The element of surprise -- "A one minute scene lit entirely by the glow of audience cell phones" -- is wasted on a scene without any meaning, and the constant shifts in theme prevent the show from building to anything beyond the sarcastically delivered finale: "Buy NASCAR in America."

I support the idea of Democracy in America, but ultimately, it fails to represent America. Only the left-wing half is adequately covered (perhaps right-wingers, having already bought major news outlets, see theater as a state they can afford to skip in the general election). As such, there's little dialog provoked by all the views -- all of which skew to the comic, save for a brief quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes -- and the show serves as little more than a self-indulgent in-joke. A funny, quite funny in-joke, at times . . . and perhaps that's enough of a reason, coupled with Annie Dorsen's direction, to see it.

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