Friday, December 10, 2010

THEATER: Emancipatory Politics

Photo/Morgan Anne Zipf

So imagine that you're hanging with fifteen graduate-school buddies, a philosophical yet fun-loving bunch. It's three in the morning: you've got a second wind on your buzz, and everything looks, feels, and sounds good. This must be life. But wait, set your cooling pizza down for a moment and look across the fourth wall of the room. There's an audience out there, complementary beers in hands, and that is as it should be: after all, you're playing yourself (or a character with your name) and you're living Eric Bland's Emancipatory Politics. This is, perhaps, what it's like to be part of Old Kent Road Theater's ensemble.

If a young Will Eno turned into a Neo-Futurist and wrote a play, this is what you might expect: a carefully curated "dam of consciousness," a bit of political theater that has been freed from the obligation to be (a) political or, strictly speaking, (b) theater. (It takes place, according to one character, in "what the New Yorker refers to as a Mannerist, smash-up era.") At two intermission-less hours and with sixteen characters, the play is too long, especially since it lacks the narrative drive of Bland's previous show, Jeanine's Abortion. However, Emancipatory Politics features an engaging (though somewhat uneven) cast, a group that provokes not the usual physical intimacy of stage (proximity and catharsis) but a mental intimacy (distance and insight). In that light, it hardly matters that characters suddenly decide to wrestle one another, break character in order to do a modern dance, or become the mouthpieces for puppets: at worst, these devices are twee; at best, they put film's so-called mumblecore to shame -- particularly in their low-budget, authentic indie aesthetic. (Abernathy Bland's floor-length drawing springs to mind.)

Though the show aims to make artificial stage dialogue into organic conversation (by removing the traditional "stakes" of a drama), the result is not always compelling enough. It is, however, certainly interesting, and written in a beautifully elliptic style. Beowulf Jones and Morgan Anne Zipf argue about whether or not our society is doomed, quickly shifting from the cynical ("If you're not a bi-curious vegan working for Greenpeace these days, you're not allowed to ride the L train") to the hopeful ("Despite everything, we haven't annihilated one another yet. And this points to something deep in the human soul, a desire to live and go on living as a species, a species that is insecure, violent, and irrational, but also proud, adaptable, and fundamentally decent").

Victoria Tate will muse about the sexuality of eating a peach; Megan McGowan's will offer grim reminders of human cruelty both in and outside our borders. What would be awkward transitions are instead casual in the hands (and mouths) of this cast of smooth talkers; Gavin Starr Kendall calls it being Southern: "Our metaphors don't have to resolve themselves and when we digress you're supposed to find it charming." Consider the way in which Anne Carlisle must connect these thoughts, after a friend asks to borrow her bicycle (to ride from New York to Arizona): "Yeah, just don't scratch it. Or do. I don't care, at all. If you had a choice, would you rather be Orwellian or Kafkaeseque? ... I think Animal Farm is missing a cockroach."

And yet, Emancipatory Politics ends with a feeling of emptiness, for it is an artificial, almost arbitrary, play, no matter how convincingly delivered. OKR claims to be on a "search for meaning in the lives of 20 and 30-something contemporary New Yorkers," and yet that search seems tame, the sort of thoughtful safari that we watch through stained-glass windows: our eyes are glazed over with the beauty of the language, but our hearts are frosted.

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