Aging might well be the least dramatic of actions. We all do it, but imperceptibly. We can’t speed it up, nor (Botox aside) can we slow it down. Like it or not, we’re all aging at the rate of 24 hours per day.
Which is why it’s so striking to watch a group of pre-teens proceed through an entire lifetime during the charming, wistful Before Your Very Eyes, a performance piece created by the U.K.- and Berlin-based ensemble Gob Squad. Working with New York–area performers aged roughly eleven through thirteen (the piece was first done in Europe with a Belgian cast), the creators imagined their subjects at every age from childhood to young adulthood, through middle age, and, finally, as good-natured, gray-wigged elders approaching death.
As the audience enters, Gob Squad’s cast of seven lounges on sofas and rugs, surrounded by two-way mirrors, as if inside a psychological observation lab. We can see them — and beyond them, our own blurry outlines upstage. We, and they, can hear the disembodied voice that, at intervals, instructs them to keep getting older. But, as they hurtle through compressed life spans, they can’t see us.
With each wild leap forward in time, the performers try to act their new age (how else can we ever act?). At “21” they wear goth makeup and black leather and snort cocaine. At “45” they don cardigans and ties, get divorced, and lecture one another about wine provenance. Gamely embodying ages not their own, they reveal how arbitrary our ideas about age really are. Forty-five-year-old behaviors played by eleven-year-olds suddenly appear as odd and poorly conceived as their outsize sport coats.
The most poignant of these leaps in time, it turns out, is also the most recent. Gob Squad began recording the cast four years ago, and at intervals, screens flanking the stage reveal footage of the same children at ages eight or nine — asking questions of the present-day performers: What’s puberty like? Do they still have their old friends, and toys? Little Matthew, on film, keeps dropping his Hula-Hoop; today’s Matthew hulas like a boss. Little Maeve wore pigtails and a shy smile, while present-day Maeve looks tough and defiantly ignores her younger self. Are they the same people they were four years ago? Are we?
Eventually the characters’ fates begin to peel away from their childhood dreams. Aja’s younger self, onscreen, fantasizes about Olympic medals and California mansions. At “45” Aja sighs with disappointment and wanders outside the mirrored walls, emerging downstage to contemplate her life from the outside in, a vantage point on existence that few of us ever get. But if this sounds like a celebration of youth, mocking the pretensions and worries of age, do not fear. In the final scene an “elderly” Matthew, his hair caked with talcum powder, tells us he finds happiness in his memories of friends.
Gob Squad often uses the alchemy of performance, technology, and shared theatrical time to bring closer things we normally can’t see: historical change in the 1960s-inspired Kitchen, intimate relationships in The Conversationalist. Here performance becomes a time-lapse camera, transforming aging into action — until the end, when the cast leaps backward out of the mirrored walls and returns to inhabiting the ages they were before the show.
Except not really: They, and we, are 90 minutes older.
Before Your Very Eyes
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street