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Shining flashlights in our faces, the SWAT team ordered us out of the van. “Let’s go, let’s go, this is not a joke! Line up against the wall!,” they barked, as we entered the former warehouse and did as we were told, placing our hands against the wall. An officer approached me with his light. “What’s this?,” he asked brusquely, referring to a Planned Parenthood button affixed to my purse. I’d barely managed to articulate an answer before he moved on: “Do you have identification? Show me your ID.” I scrambled to pull my wallet from my purse and my ID from wallet; as I did so, I genuinely wondered, for the briefest bit of a second, if I’d ever get it back. Even though the sound of the snarling dogs in the background was clearly a recording, and even though I knew I was at the outset of a theatrical installation, the SWAT team’s intense hostility made me anxious. I’m a middle-class white woman, after all. The last time I was made to line up and face police flashlights was in high school, when I was caught drinking at a keg party in a corporate parking lot.
This, it’s safe to spoil, is how you enter Doomocracy, artist Pedro Reyes’s new project for Creative Time that’s part haunted house and part immersive theater (Reyes worked with a director, 3-Legged Dog’s Meghan Finn, and a playwright, Paul Hufker). Set inside the coldly industrial Brooklyn Army Terminal, the show is spread over a labyrinth of 14 rooms, each of which contains its own scene complete with meticulous set and superb actors. (A useful analogy is to Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s installations, except in this case including the people and stories that are usually missing.) As you enter and exit the rooms in quick, strict succession with a group of fellow visitors, Doomocracy unfolds into a potent mix of satire, dystopia, and uncomfortable reality.
That last category is where the SWAT team falls: convincingly brute and disinterested — especially amid a culture of police killing black and brown people with impunity — to be scary in its accuracy. Another room effectively blends the first two genres. When we arrived, we were told to sit at classroom desks by a computer named Amee, which went on to explain why the school we were in had decided to switch to artificially intelligent teachers: “One problem with schools today is humans, and one problem with humans is emotions.” Another, related problem with humans is bias, and as Amee, initially represented by the face of a black woman, spoke, its image suddenly switched to that of a blond-haired white man, picking up a drawl in the process. “You’re more comfortable with Jimee!,” the computer then proclaimed, as a message scrolled across its screen: “School alert: if you see a brown person, say something.”
The show’s best moments land like this: satire that stings because it’s inventively absurd yet also grounded, somewhere, in truth. Those moments when you don’t know if it’s more appropriate to laugh or cry. Other vignettes — including an attempt to visualize a drone strike — miss their mark, not for lack of plausibility but for heavy-handedness. There’s something terrifying in the open space of possibility. At times Reyes seems to have gotten so mired in the idea of doom that he forgot to allow for the contingency of creation. Doom is scary because it’s the final word on something; art is effective because it’s not.
This may be why, for me, at least, the most effective scenarios in Doomocracy were the ones in which I played a part. The show exists in a tricky metaphysical space, between theater — in which the audience traditionally becomes invested by way of actors and their telling of a story — and a haunted house — which still uses actors (and sets, props, etc) but substitutes physical and emotional manipulation for at least some of the narrative. Doomocracy isn’t quite either of these things: it doesn’t have a through line, but it also (minus the SWAT team) doesn’t literally jolt you into engagement. Although the acting was impeccable, there were times when my stake in a scenario seemed to have been taken for granted. Being forced to engage — to choose, for instance, between saving others’ jobs and saving myself with a “golden parachute” — and to face the consequences implicated me in the horrors.
That’s especially important given the left-wing, art-going audience that Creative Time and Reyes are likely to bring in. Not much in this house would haunt conservatives — there’s one room in particular I bet many of them would love — but even among liberals, you could attend, laugh at the extreme bits, congratulate yourself on your awareness, and go home satisfied. Such a slightly standoffish attitude was embodied by many of the members of my group, who were either too timid, too cool, or too drunk to give themselves over to the participation that made Doomocracy most effective. As the experience wore on, I found myself increasingly frustrated by their apathy and how it affected me — an apt metaphor, I suppose, for the US’ political process.
Or rather, it would be in any other year; 2016 is somewhat …. uncommon (and perhaps uncommonly emotional). Doomocracy is mostly not about this — the show is bookended by two scenes that place you firmly in the election cycle, but what falls between them are riffs on issues that have been haunting us since long before Clinton vs. Trump, and will continue to long after. This is, I think, to Reyes’s credit: Trump’s lunatic campaign has been a revelation but also a distraction. At the same time, there’s no denying that the 2016 election is the painfully, inescapably real context for Doomocracy — it’s even part of the show’s inspiration. And that results in a bizarre kind of competition between art and life. Reyes’s demons are a haunting form of entertainment, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the real horrors begin when you set foot outside the door.
Pedro Reyes’s Doomocracy continues at the Brooklyn Army Terminal (140 58th Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn) through November 6.