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It’s a moment easy to miss, as the Builders Association’s unnerving new production accumulates layers of sound, video, and computer animation. A boy on-screen, filmed as if by a surveillance system as he wanders an airport, suddenly turns and makes a few fleeting, idiotic faces at the camera. At first, his home-movie mugging seems just a non sequitur, a refreshing mockery of all the technology surrounding him—and us. But it also comes to epitomize the artists’ own ambivalence toward their machines. As conceived by the celebrated architects Diller + Scofidio, and directed by Marianne Weems, Jet Lag is both stylish and self-conscious, its makers aware of, and sometimes anxious about, how easily they assimilate to a mediated world. The result is a showcase for the artificial that often proves (unwittingly?) the resilience of the human.
This opposition also shapes the production’s two stories. In the first, Roger Dearborn (Jeff Webster) tries to sail alone around the world. He fails, disappearing several hundred miles offshore, but not before making videos meant to prove he had gone much further. The second story (based, like the first, on fact) depicts obsessive travel of a different order. Doris (Dale Soules) kidnaps her grandson, Lincoln (Dominique Dibbell), and together they make more than 150 transatlantic flights, turning around as soon as they land so as not to be caught, before Doris finally dies, midflight, of jet lag.
In these intermediate zones—on or above the ocean, in an airport lounge—machines supply the itinerant characters their sense of place. Roger is surrounded by radios, radars, and cameras, and is tethered electronically to onshore observers seated Wooster Group-style at a long table covered with even more gadgets. (The display gives the lie, of course, to Roger’s repeated boast that he’s “all alone out here, with nothing to rely on but my own strength.”) The characters spend much of their time reporting and recording Roger’s location, just as, in the second part, air-traffic control and other personnel monitor every move of travelers determined to elude surveillance.
Yet for all their zeal, the geography of Jet Lag remains unknowable. Roger’s bulletins on his whereabouts are often rendered incoherent by delays in the transmission; characters talk over one another, never making contact. The witty scene design exacerbates this confusion. A small screen showing video of the ocean rocks back and forth behind Roger. Before he tells us he’s in a storm, he sprays an atomizer on his face. Manufacturing his environment, he could be anywhere—or nowhere more remote than the stage.
Doris and Lincoln are equally unreliable witnesses to their own landscape. Their inevitable disorientation among time zones deepens as the computer animation becomes more elaborate. On the big screen, airplanes, escalators, and indoor walkways move while the actors stay put. During the final flight, we enjoy a pilot’s-eye view of the horizon, but quickly lose all sense of up and down as the plane banks sharply during takeoff (or is it landing?). Moreover, what we’re seeing on-screen may be nothing more than a video game. Like Roger, these travelers cover a lot of ground but never see an authentic landscape.
Not everything in Jet Lag is mediated, and in these glimpses of naturalness its analysis of technology’s impact is especially sharp. In Part I, pride of place on the long table is reserved for a manual typewriter, its nervous clatter competing with the other, processed sounds. In Part II, Lincoln fidgets incessantly, as if his motor system were resisting the scheduled movement imposed on him. Doris rebels in her own way: She vigorously cleans a waiting-room chair, determined to claim and then domesticate at least this one piece of territory. The fact that the sound of her scrubbing is created by another actor at a microphone only emphasizes the poignancy of her doomed effort. Most memorable is the understated performance of Heaven Phillips as Dearborn’s wife. When she learns of his fate, she shakes off the embrace of an oversolicitous publicist: His feelings are as manufactured as everything else in Jet Lag. Here, only her vacant stare and hollow voice can claim to be spontaneous.