At The Abduction Project, two near-blinding lights beam from the darkness, while an ominous whirring announces the arrival of the spaceship that will bear you…well, away. At The Florida Project, an MC with a megaphone welcomes you to the “fascinating underwater world of Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida,” where girls perform as mermaids “up to 125 feet below the water” and the brothers Allen wrestle live alligators. Both Projects are theatrical essays on American style and culture. While the first strives for a polished avant-garde artiness, the latter wants to be tackier than the kitsch it parodies.
Conceived and directed by Stephanie Gilman and K Tanzer, The Abduction Project takes on both the 1950s father-knows-best family and alien abduction—to a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Created by Collision Theory, the piece plays off interviews done with scientists, extra-terra interest groups, and “abductees,” but it’s anti-documentary in feel. Performed in the company’s signature style of stylized movement, visual tableaux, musical cacophony, and verbal playfulness, it presents itself as a kind of comical-surreal dreamscape.
Mom and Dad and Mary and Bobby, the sitcom ’50s family, sit around their kitchen table robotically uttering period banalities. They freeze as ominous lights and scary music infiltrate their domestic pod, or jitterbug in a blaze of light to “Rock Around the Clock.” An “interrogator” questions a blank Mom about her alien encounter; a newscaster reports unexplained disappearances. A mad scientist with a Groucho Marx mustache and Harpo wig spouts mumbo jumbo while scrawling equations on a blackboard—to match chalk circles of math drawn by Bobby.
All of this is arresting. The piece’s design tricks—S. Ryan Schmidt’s lighting, Bo Bell’s sound, Shelley Norton’s costumes, and Shannon Corbin Rednour’s sets and props—are knockouts. The performers are smooth and able. The direction milks these and the choreography for some stellar effects. In one climactic scene, the cast, zombielike under a red glow, all get in an otherworldly train to the sound of locomotive wheels and whistles and a conductor’s cry of “All aboard!” It’s well done, as are so many of the scenes. But the unanswered question is: Why done? If there’s a theme, a point of view, a real story to be told, it’s lost in the deluge of repetitious show-off effects. They hammer you without enlightening you—despite all the nifty illumination on the stage.
While The Abduction Project mines the quarry of the strange, from De Chirico to The Twilight Zone, The Florida Project dips into the trough of low taste, from daytime soaps to wet T-shirt contests. Written and directed by Tory Vazquez, the piece can be best described as half-wet. Its staging centers around a rectangular tank of blue water too short to cover a standing person and too narrow for a body to stretch out in. This bit of truncated fakery—which represents the underwater stage for the mermaids’ ballet and the gator-wrastling ring—could stand for the premise of the Project: bad art badly done in deadly earnest.
Start with the story. Three brothers run a down-and-out theme park, where “girls” in green lame fishtails do underwater routines. Ross (Aaron Landsman) loves Beth (Kristen Kosmas), the wife of his brother Robert (Chris Sullivan). When Robert fucks one of the mermaids, heartbreak and violence erupt—in uninflected lines. “Ow,” says Beth without expression on witnessing her hubby humping the mermaid. “That was my heart.” Her other brother-in-law, Tom (downtown icon Richard Maxwell), is oblivious and laconic.
If the acting is determinedly awful, the lyrics and dancing are worse. Choreography is performed as if “underwater,” on turquoise Astroturf, half in the tank, or lying on top of it. Think fish out of water. The show’s spiels are dumb and dumber, like this star turn by a “mermaid”: “We get real hungry after we swim…and we get a 10 percent discount at the cafeteria.” This excursion into loopy Americana ought to be riotously funny. It’s not, but it does have a certain droll charm. And how often do you get to see a man in a green-foam alligator suit wring out his snout?
Francine Russo’s review of Collision Theory’s “Incorporated: A Cinderella Story.”