When is a dance not a dance? If you add enough spoken dialogue, does it become a play? How much energetic movement does it take to turn a play into dance theater? Can something be termed dance theater just because it traffics in narrative and high emotions? How fierce does the action have to get before a piece gets labeled “physical theater”? These issues sometimes plague critics, although I’m not sure audiences should fret over them.
I think I’m safe saying that Witness Relocation’s Dancing vs. the Rat Experiment isn’t exactly a dance event, despite the title. The group’s artistic director Dan Safer (billed here as director/choreographer) has shown his work in dance venues (and was once a go-go dancer), and desultory ballroom stuff crops up in the work, but Rat Experiment is primarily a lively, messy, occasionally trite, thought-provoking entertainment, performed by a collaborative bunch of actors. Assessing the choreography would be pointless.
Safer’s subject is a big dire one: the effect of overpopulation on human behavior. He tackles this Malthusian quandary by the extended metaphor of confinement and crowding among lab rats (we learns about the rats’ problems through voice-overs by Richard Armstrong and occasional speeches by the onstage performers). “The show might be about the end of the world,” announces Safer.
In the beginning, the congestion doesn’t look too bad, just a matter of lack of privacy. The nine performers relax on blue beach towels, reading magazines. I note, however, that they wear knee and ankle pads. Cataclysmic noise. Blackout. The “experiment” progresses via encounters in a ballroom, a prizefight ring, a soap opera, and on a game show. Winners and losers are announced; so is the real passing time. Those performers not involved in a given experiment sit around a table at the back reading, eating, and drinking.
I’m not sure whether Laura Berlin Stinger singing “Oh my love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch . . .” into a mic and tossing glitter while a couple embrace signifies the normalcy that’s about to erode. At any rate, the recorded soundtrack starts emitting thunderous rhythms, and the performers, numbers on their backs, are ordered into paired rock scissors-paper contests. A bucket descends from overhead so they can scrub their faces.
This is only the first of a series of increasingly bizarre ordeals to an eclectic recorded mix by music groups ranging from the classy Borromeo String Quartet to more far-out bands and musicians like DJ Dragon, “a mainstay of the Southeast Asia dance club circuit.” People’s behavior becomes increasingly odd. I think I noted Abby Browde (clad in a puffy blue sort-of tutu) licking the floor. Randy Thompson is seized by a fit of leaping. Sean Donovan whispers conspiratorially to the audience and then goes nuts. Safer and Heather Christian embrace and dance, but when the music ends, they’re kissing frantically with one or the other’s hands placed between their mouths (“Lighten up there!” calls Stinger from the back of the space).
Amid the music, shifting lights, spoken information about stressed-out rats, printed signs, and physical exertion, the theater becomes an increasingly littered and disrupted recreation room. Perhaps these people have been dumped here so that behavioral scientists (us?) can examine them through one-way glass. Hostilities build. Emmitt George almost strangles Orion Taraban, scrubs the floor with him, and drags him crying away. The “soap opera” details through narration and action how a man leaves his wife for another man. In other words, the mating habits of rats are thrown off course through a deteriorating environment. Mothers kill their young (Stinger picks up a baseball bat and brains the invisible wailing baby she’s been rocking).
Then, in one of the show’s many abrupt changes, the cast cleans up the mess, and we’re advised, “Talk among yourselves.” The final ordeal is a bizarre combination of musical chairs, a TV game show, and a method acting class from hell. The performers perch on red crates at the back of the space and are eliminated one by one as they fail to complete the stated tasks with the requisite emotion before the bell rings. They also have to snag one of the downstage chairs, which become fewer and fewer. Safer is the first to go. Some try cheating. Browde gives up in disgust. Thompson, Taraban, and Donovan persist through expressing lust while blowing up a balloon till it pops. After a final sackrace, Taraban bests Thompson and wearily sings “Auld Lang Syne” as the
experiment (the world?) comes to an end.
Perhaps because lab rats don’t agonize over their decisions or wonder if compromises might be possible, Safer’s beleaguered humans react to their situation without nuance or apparent thought. This mental numbness, perhaps, is what makes the truly upsetting goings-on seem like superficial sketches of deeper dilemmas.