What is it that’s so addictive about videos of mischievous pets, excitable children, and opinionated oddballs? And if we brought together the most successful YouTube clips ever, would the results testify to collective cultural genius—or to the hopeless inanity of digital-age life? Tube, the latest from reenactment-happy theater ensemble Van Cougar (now playing at the Incubator), confronts this problem by staging a mashup of online-video’s greatest hits. It’s an appealing premise—and would be more appealing if director Mark Sitko and company answered their own questions as cleverly as they’ve asked them.
Tube begins by putting its audience in charge, making us feel we’re at the computer, scrolling and clicking—and clicking, and clicking: Performers ask spectators to choose between two top-scoring videos (say, “David After the Dentist” versus “Charlie Bit My Finger”). We’re then treated to a highly precise rendition of our chosen clip—performed with deadpan seriousness, and captured simultaneously by cameras, whose live feed is viewable on a stack of TV screens. Afterward, the audience can elect to see the same performance again, or move on. (When I attended, viewers decided, inexplicably, to watch “Jessica’s Daily Affirmation” three times in a row, but “Grape Lady Falls!” only once.)
From here, the piece morphs into a kind of online-video symphony, composed of selections from YouTube’s gallery of success stories. Lana Del Rey’s “Videogames” creates an almost meditative interlude, while an admirable impersonation of the “Five Guys Burgers and Fries Review” harmonizes with the ecstatic ravings of the “Double Rainbow” dude. An ensemble take on “Gangnam Style,” complete with fluorescent sunglasses, concludes the evening on a rousing note.
If all of this sounds fun but a little bit slight—it is. Van Cougar’s last production, Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din, at the Bushwick Starr, also highlighted the company’s penchant for screen-to-stage reenactments. But in that piece—which juxtaposed real soldiers’ testimony with scenes from famous combat films—the collaged sequences accumulated into a disturbing portrait of America’s relationship to war. Here we’re given, at best, a less-than-flattering survey of the 21st-century subconscious. The performances are adept and often hilarious (“Denver the Guilty Dog” is another highlight), but the piece doesn’t really evolve as it unfolds—nor does the contrast between live and onscreen action expand its conceptual scope. Like its sources of inspiration, Tube is, by turns, strange, entertaining, and mildly off-putting—but I probably wouldn’t click on it a second time.