The whirlwind of performances accompanying the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in New York has come to a close, with PS122’s COIL, the Public Theater’s Under the Radar, HERE’s Prototype, Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness, and other festivals wrapping up last Sunday. Some of the performances turned for inspiration to darkness, both figuratively and literally.
Full of ideas, many of them disturbing, Confirmation, presented at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn as part of COIL, explores territory foreign to the festivals’ often sympathetic, identity-affirming tenor. Confirmation is based on interviews conducted by the Manchester-based performer Chris Thorpe with “Glen,” a British right-wing activist. The piece explores the “confirmation bias,” a general tendency for humans to interpret facts in such a way as to confirm existing beliefs, a phenomenon that affects, for example, scientific studies, as researchers misinterpret or overlook contrary data.
Thorpe and co-developer and director Rachel Chavkin have created a one-person show for Thorpe, in which he plays himself and impersonates Glen. The staging could hardly be pared down further. The set is a couple of chairs. Thorpe sometimes uses a microphone, but often relies upon his unaided voice to reach the audience, who are seated close by on all four sides and whom he regularly addresses directly. Early on, he makes a costume change into Glen, who presents himself plainly in a white, collared, short-sleeve shirt and gray trousers. Glen explains that Thorpe would react negatively to the way he usually dresses, and so he has chosen this neutral costume to get the best reception. Glen is, by the way, an avowed Nazi.
At some moments, it was unclear which character was speaking. Thorpe remained dressed as Glen even when he switched back to playing himself. Though there may have been clues discernible to British ears, it seemed as if Thorpe spoke in the same accent as both himself and Glen. This confusion might have been deliberate, to show the transference of identity as the conversations continued, but it blunted the ideological conflict driving the show.
As himself, Thorpe reassures the spectators about his own progressive values and explains that he deliberately sought out his opposite as a way of testing and strengthening his own beliefs. What he found was more complex than he expected. Glen is a Holocaust-denying racist, of course, but he reveals his soft side to Thorpe and evolves over the course of their talks. Although Glen’s opinions are repulsive, he shows intelligence in his efforts to persuade Thorpe, who confesses to being partly swayed by his interlocutor. Confirmation succeeds in offering an unsensational, unsentimental look into the world of white suprematists in the U.K. and by extension their likeminded cohorts in the U.S., an uncomfortable but necessary experience. As Sun-Tzu advised in The Art of War, know your enemy.
With its use of a repellant antihero, Confirmation resembled The Art of Luv (Part 1): Elliot at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, like Chavkin and Thorne, turns to a bigot for its story. Though the piece has many modules, the central thread concerns Elliot Rodger, who went on a shooting spree at his California college in 2014 because he felt rejected by women. The piece includes videos that Rodger, deluded and pitiful, posted before the killings, in which he, the supreme narcissist, insists on how “magnificent” he is and wonders how women could turn him down. As with the other sampled video in the show, Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble lip-syncs Rodger’s video monologue and then gradually actually speaks his words as Rodger’s voice is muted. Duplicate video streams of the lip-syncing performer are projected overhead on either side of Rodger’s video, as in an oversized triptych.
Unlike Chavkin and Thorpe, ROKE approaches Rodger’s twisted worldview with irony, contextualizing it within America’s vapid consumer culture. ROKE incorporates a teen’s homemade shopping review videos and vintage how-to-get-a-girl instructional films to evoke the society that created Rodger and made him feel like a failure.
Audience members had the choice to sit in regular theater seats or on cushions on the floor, like devotees in the presence of their guru. Sitting cross-legged on a slightly elevated platform, the ROKE performers wore white kimonos and gold wreathes in their hair, and their faces were painted gold. The framing device for the piece as a whole was an unlikely meditation exercise, complete with the familiar breathing instructions of a yoga class. Luv is a tongue-in-cheek healing ritual for the age of mass murder. Like Confirmation, Luv theatrically contrasts extreme hatred and soft liberalism, here the yogic, laissez-faire, nonjudgmental ethos of California. ROKE’s comic, playfully appropriationist approach offers a look at evil that is no less disturbing.
Morphia Series, by choreographer Helen Herbertson and lighting designer Ben Cobham, part of COIL and performed in shifts before a small audience of twelve at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, is wonderfully brief (twenty minutes). The brevity is especially welcome in the festival context, when many APAP visitors and New York performance-lovers have already perhaps seen too much. Cobham has designed the theater experience extremely well: a backlit box for Herbertson to dance in and movable audience seating.
The audience is ushered two at a time into the noiseless Howard Gilman Theater at BAC and is allowed some time for the eyes to adjust to the cave-like lack of illumination. It is so dark that one wonders whether the fire marshal knew about this set-up. Eventually, Cobham’s box starts to glow, and stage smoke circulates inside the box, forming a cloud around Herbertson’s body. She dances mostly with her arms, understandably since there’s not much room in the box to leap around. The stage picture is captivating. The piece achieves a Cageian openness to the accidental present, in which attention is heightened by exclusion, the work of darkness and soundproofing. A smart, short, intimate performance could become a powerful experience. But the show doesn’t push hard enough to turn its visual and acoustic success into something more, whether emotional response or intellectual awakening. The soundtrack is too often unsurprising: nature sounds (birds chirping) and some street noise, though some of that might have snuck in from West 37th Street. A recorded female voice recites some lines about “her,” presumably the woman in the box. “Her” feelings are described, though not who she is or where she is or why she feels that way. “She” could be anyone, which might be the point, but the generality robs the performance of the chance to add substance and depth to the engaging visual experience that Herbertson and Cobham have devised.
At the end — spoiler alert! — the movable seating brings the audience in for a sudden close-up encounter with Herbertson’s aging body. Plenty of dances today, however, purposely feature persons of different ages, (dis-)abilities and sizes, and in 2016 the visual experience of the naked female performer of any age is considerably less shocking and provocative to thought than it was when feminist art performance began in the U.S. in the 1960s.