A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Full of Bells and Whistles
Human beings have a very good reason for covering their ears when they hear loud noises, or their eyes when confronted with harsh flashing lights. Both sensations are painful; people protect themselves.
For this same reason, art often employs technological devices to produce these effects. Emotional or intellectual violence can sometimes best be captured by extremes, and art forces such encounters. Maguy Marin’s dance-theater work “Umwelt,” which uses a howling wind tunnel to build an oppressive world, comes to mind.
But what if nothing is built? What if nothing is felt? What is to keep viewers from turning away?
Earplugs help some. Japan Society handed them out, unasked, to its audience on Thursday when the multimedia Japanese spectacle “True” opened a three-night run. The 70-minute work, a collaboration between Takayuki Fujimoto and Takao Kawaguchi of the collective Dumb Type and the choreographer Tsuyoshi Shirai, is full of bells and whistles. Program credits include one for “myoelectric sensing/vibration mechanism support” (Masaki Teruoka) and another for “sound/oscillation/programming” (Daito Manabe).
It sounds fancy, but the results are all too meager. Technology without theater doesn’t have much to say.
All begins calmly, in an antiseptic space, maybe an office. Mr. Shirai stands in the clean space, which contains only a table and is bounded by lighted scaffolding on both sides. This table, with its normal scattering of objects, holds special powers. Pick up a glass, and a portal of howling sound opens. Set something else down, and the ring of colored lights overhead goes crazy.
It takes a minute to notice the man (Mr. Kawaguchi, a silky, versatile mover) in the shiny red raincoat, lurking in the scaffolding. Soon enough he’s unleashed, offering a few clichéd thoughts on perception, color and such. As he speaks, key words are picked up on the video screen behind him, which looks for all the world like a giant screen saver.
Surrounded by all this silliness and hindered by ineffectual choreography, the men don’t have much hope of making an impact. Who is to know if they’re telling truths or falsehoods?
Who Are We? Where Are We? What Are We Doing? You Decide
Marguerite Duras is one of those rare writers (Sarah Kane and Gertrude Stein are others) whose blithe indifference to genre makes them ideal for use in multimedia performance, where effects become pregnant with meaning and language leans toward background music. "Destroy, She Said" (1969) belongs to a radical phase of Duras's career (after the 1968 student protests in France), when she began labeling her fascinatingly fractured texts more or less arbitrarily as novels, stories, plays or film scripts. It was perceptive of the adaptor and director Ivan Talijancic and his WaxFactory collaborators to recognize this coldly erotic, deeply ambiguous story as a potent foil for their technical wizardry.
The set for " ...She Said," a 45-minute visual gem presented in English at the Brooklyn Lyceum as part of the Act French festival, is a wide, white-walled tube that recalls the tunnels in the old TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. Raised about three feet off the floor, it seems to float in the dark as numbers, words and multilayered video clips are seen on its rear wall and three actors - a man and a woman in white (Dion Doulis and Katarina Stegnar) and a woman in black (Erika Latta) - move about in tightly choreographed patterns, starkly silhouetted by lights embedded in the walls and floor.
The actors play unnamed characters whose identities are fluid and who behave sensually in a detached, formalistic way. Sometimes they wrestle together and rise from the floor lit by a pulsing strobe, their movements acquiring an eerie, punctuated harmony that evokes plants growing in time-lapse photography.
Unfortunately, the text overlaid on these gorgeous, animated images is even more fractured than Duras's and extremely frustrating. The book tells an elegantly indeterminate story about calcified love and predatory destruction among four people staying in a hotel for convalescents.
"...She Said," by contrast, relies on the rather tired and limited idea that obscuring specific location and time is in itself interesting. The closest the show comes to situated action is when unlocatable, miked voices say, "Where are we?" "In a hotel." "Could it be some other place?" "It is up to the spectator to choose." Most of the lines are apparently selected at random from either Duras's book or from her famously petulant interviews.
Occasionally, Ms. Latta steps out of the white tube and speaks directly with the audience as "the author" at a long table at floor level beside the production's four technicians. Her yearning for a closer and more meaningful connection with "her" creations ties the action together to an extent, though her posing in black gloves holding a drink and smoking is pretentious.
For all its homage to Duras, "... She Said" is a very different sort of "hybrid" artwork from the ones she conceived. It's much more slick, constructive and purposeful, with its confident technical display, than the deliberately broken and disruptive "Destroy, She Said" (which Duras once fondly called "imbecilic"). At one point, Mr. Talijancic inserts a line I couldn't find in Duras's text: "Perhaps someone from the outside could manage to find out what's going on inside." Don't count on it.