Are actors necessary? Certainly they seem so. Who else would serve our amuse-bouche, babysit our children, look sultry in head-shot ads, and prepare our occasional dose of Aeschylus or Ibsen? Yet in several performances at this year’s Under the Radar, the annual festival “tracking new theater” curated by Mark Russell, live actors seemed ancillary at best. Video, recorded sound, and audience participants supplied the labor usually expected of thespians. The resulting shows were all more or less appealing, but often lacked the visceral quality that only the mutual presence and engagement of performer and spectator produces.
In Zachary Oberzan’s poignant Your Brother. Remember? (Dixon Place), Oberzan sits below a video screen, clutching a guitar. On the screen, he and his brother and sister appear in two sets of home movies, one made in their teens, another made 20 years on. The movies themselves are re-creations of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer and the mondo film Faces of Death. They provide a means for Oberzan to plumb his relationship with his brother—a sleek and cocky figure in the earliest videos, burly and somewhat menacing in the recent ones. While Oberzan occasionally strums his guitar and recites the odd monologue, all the emotional and narrative heavy lifting occurs on-screen.
Liveness seems equally extraneous in Dutch A/V (La MaMa), a chaotic collage piece by director-playwright Tommy Smith and performer Reggie Watts. Smith, Watts, and critic Brendan Kiley received funding to tour Amsterdam, laden with spycams, in the hope of exploring Walter Benjamin’s notion of the flaneur. Unable to extract a show from that experiment, they combined the footage with stories of misadventure, accompanied by shots of Watts’s native Montana. Watts provides some of the narration and also demonstrates his beatboxing skills, but the incoherence of the piece and his separation from the audience (he only ever appears behind the video screen) mutes his contribution.
If Watts’s Dutch footage rarely compels, you can’t fault the filmmaking techniques of 2boys.tv, whose Phobophilia (Here) owes an acknowledged debt to Jean Cocteau. The live performer’s primary task consists of manipulating the screens on which baroque images are projected. Designed as a meditation on fear, Phobophilia wasn’t particularly scary, save for its opening, in which spectators are blindfolded and then marched into the space. Shuffling in darkness, gasping at each irregularity in the floor, audience members supplied their own terror.
They also supplied much of the interest in the sweetly entertaining Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) (La MaMa). Gob Squad, a British-German collective, sets out to reconstruct Andy Warhol’s 1965 Kitchen, a film they only half remember. The audience first walks through the film-studio set—which is equipped with a table, chairs, instant coffee, and cornflakes—and then settles in to watch the live feed. But as the performance progresses, Gob Squad’s actors become dissatisfied with their own efforts and reach into the audience to pluck a few spectators out and insert them into the film set to make toast and stare at the camera for them. These untutored performances are strangely affecting (and beautifully lit), contrasting elegantly with the faux-improvisation of the Gob Squad corps. Even though these volunteers were sequestered behind the screen, they worked to knit performers and spectators together. What they were doing wasn’t necessarily acting, and the result wasn’t necessarily theater, but it was wonderful all the same.