Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Under The Radar (Off-Site): "Small Metal Objects" and "Of All The People in the World: USA"

-Small Metal Objects

Photo/Jeff Busby

It's a feeling most peculiar for a New Yorker, this sense of tuning in. And that's just one of the conventions that Back to Back Theater turns on its head for the site-specific piece, Small Metal Objects. Not only is it unusual for an audience to gather in the crowded South Ferry terminal during the height of commuter traffic, but it's discomforting for the commuters themselves to see hundreds of eyes suddenly focused on their very anonymity. It's even more unusual to find ourselves rooting for such little guys: Gary (Sonia Teuben) and Steve (Simon Laherty), with their slouched postures or diminutive size, their slow, easy going speech, and long, contemplative pauses, are far from the heroes we expect. But that's the point, isn't it? To focus in on the sort of person you'd normally ignore, and to actually listen for a moment, to remember, as Gary optimistically opines: "Everything has a value."

That said, Small Metal Objects begins rather tantalizing, by allowing us to hear Gary and Steve speak before we can pick them out of the crowd. For fifteen minutes, there's a sense of telepathic deepening, as if we are hearing two strangers and growing to understand their characters, to really perceive them, an effect deepened by Hugh Covill's repetition of electronic chords. When at last we locate Gary in the crowd, it's like finally meeting an e-correspondent: not what you'd expected, but not disappointing either. We also have the benefit of a slight story that makes us further sympathize with him: he's being met by a tall, handsome man, Alan (Jim Russell), who wishes to buy some drugs from him. Yes; that's another flip of conventions: we're rooting for the drug dealer, and against the handsome man.

Back to Back Theater's mission is to give light to these underdogs, the people excluded from the norm because of perceived or imagined disabilities, and Small Metal Objects proves how deserving we each are of a voice. When Alan's colleague Carolyn (Genevieve Morris) shows up to cajole Steve into allowing the transaction, she tries every trick in the book to move Steve, but her distaste is apparent from the get-go, and only solidified when she growls: "You're standing here dying when you could be living." As if, because Steve is different, or because he's prone to metaphysical meltdowns, he is somehow less of a person. If anything, he's better off: he has a friend like Gary, a friend who won't assail his character, and who bravely accepts him as he is, doing his best "to see you more happy than depressed."

The plot may be slight, but it's utterly compelling and suspenseful because of how close the action is. We may know what's going on, but the pedestrians -- accidental extras -- don't, and that gives the play a frisson of unpredictability, or greater still, the poetics of the ordinary, as when a pigeon flapped by, exactly to the cue of a long, hopeful, electronic thrum. For a moment, we have stopped our busy lives, looked around, and really listened. And that's the most beautiful thing of all.

-Of All The People in the World: USA

Photo/Ed Dimsdale

Speaking of stopping our busy lives, the installation Of All The People in the World, an international production from Stan's Cafe making its premiere in the World Financial Center, is an excellent reminder of how powerful the visual is. The premise is simple: take five tons of rice, use one grain for each person, and then convert stats into mounds of rice. Some stats are serious, as with a series of comparisons between the number of citizens of Chad needed to produce as much carbon dioxide as citizens from the lowest ranking country (Congo) to the highest (Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the US). Some stats are irreverent: "Number of Taxi Drivers in New York City" as opposed to "Robert DeNiro." Others are cute: "Number of viewers for the final episode of "'Sex and the City'" versus "Single Women in Manhattan." Some are terrifying: there are about as many millionaires in the world as there are refugees (and they're both larger piles than you'd think).

As one continues through the exhibition, the staggering volume starts to add up. One starts to compare even unrelated stacks, coming up with their own valuation for all those little granular lives, growing invested in the correlations, and heartsick at some of the stats. There's no way to avoid the lurch in one's gut at seeing how much "rice" was born today as opposed to how much "rice" died. It's unfathomable how Sub-Saharan Africa could be so riddled with AIDS. Numbers on the page can be reasoned with, ignored. The sheer willfulness of counting and displaying all that rice, its obtuseness in the midst of a business sector: these things make the facts unavoidable, and all the more powerful.

The exhibit changes on a regular basis, and sells little gift bags that allow you take take home a representative "Hillary Clinton" (for example), but don't dismiss these commercial tools as gimmickry: Of All The People in the World: USA is not only powerful, it's completely free.

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