Novelty Shots: A Political Fantasy
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Red Eye Theater, New Works 4 Weeks Isolated Acts
by Non Edwards
You can’t block a performance, you can’t click the x on a performance, you can’t scroll through a performance, you can’t talk to your roommate during a performance, you can’t abandon a performance to start cooking dinner, you can’t get out of a performance without breaking serious social standards, getting up and leaving, disrupting, closing your eyes, crooking your neck, or tuning out.
Seeing Novelty Shots: A Political Fantasy was like staring at a 17” platter with about seven big polka dots on it. The platter itself is blank and the polka dots are different colors and not exactly randomly placed. Like if Sally Rousse’s car was 17” platter.
Even though the polka dots are unveiled one by one, you stop getting excited about them. You kind of wish that one of them was a square or that some of them were the same color or that maybe they were overlapping. The performative content of Novelty Shots is not something one should look directly at. It can’t hold up to that kind of detailed viewing. It does a good job of taking up most of the desirable retail on the Red Eye’s stage, and your only options for not looking at it are walking out, disrupting the performance, closing your eyes, crooking your neck, or focusing on that bit of void space left of center.
The beginning is one thing repeating. Then iterations of that thing. Once you understand that you are going to be listening to Billy repeat one line with subtle changes for a while, you check out. The movement is stationary, and then the movement is primarily two-dimensional. The iterations have a fairly even timing. Nothing comes out of left field. Someone fires a stage gun at the two performers and the beginning ends. Once you check out, back when Billy was still just standing at the lectern, nothing pulls you back in until the gun shots.
The middle section is a bunch of tasks happening in specific locations on stage. Each task is confined to its spotlight; the performers essentially run a circuit of these tasks. Once you see each task, you don’t really need to see it again. While this section is more busy than the beginning, it is no more complex and less engaging.
There is a break with sounds of the ocean and the projection of someone’s computer screen. “Getting away from it all” but still being plugged in? Chasing mindfulness across the digital age? The fact that they wanted the sound of the ocean and the internet was the first and cheapest place to access it?
The end. The end is certainly the climax. It is also the most interesting. It uses shock tactics, nudity, screaming, threatening to poop on stage, and whistles. Megan Mayer is noticeably absent from this section. Why? Conscientious abstention?
Why does this work have to feel like a lecture and also the kind of party you have to be crunk for? Why emulate something I want less of? When the house lights come up, my eyes are tired, I’m grumpy, and I don’t trust them with any more of my time, so I forego the newly distributed programs.
Novelty Shots starts with Billy Mullaney at a lectern. He has one line, which he repeats. The line is about repetition. There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in emphasis, occasionally words are substituted for like-sounding words. He leaves the lectern on a straight path stage right and returns. He leaves the lectern on straight path to stage left and returns. During one of these trips Emily Gastineau enters through the stage left doors of the Red Eye Theater stage and joins him in his delivery. She exits. She returns. The words repeat, the movement repeats. They are upright, fairly two-dimensional in their movement, and presentational. The duration of the section feels good, but the individual iterations seem too even. It seems like fifteen to twenty minutes before someone enters through the stage left door and fires a loud gunshot, then another. Billy and Emily fall to the floor. There is a long black out.
Section two starts with both Emily and Billy at the lectern. They are reciting wikipedia articles. Sometimes they are repeating. When they arrive at choice hyperlinked terms in the article they speak in unison and one ventures off into that subject’s own wiki article. The first of many “stations” comes into view as the back curtain parts and a small kitchen is revealed with two performers talking. They open beers, they gesture. A spot on the stage right wall comes up and another performer runs to it, spewing stuffed animals, violently whipping them at the wall. Another pool of light comes up at stage left, someone runs to it, jumps as high as they can and smacks the wall with their outstretched arm, then turns around and slides down to the ground. Another spot at stage right of center, and performers assume a coccyx balance with feet and hands flexed, a look of shock on their faces. Another light falls at the downstage edge of the theater. Billy emerges from the stage left door with a pan of something. Is it cake? He sets it down, and it is not cake. Are they breadsticks? It is a throng of peeled bananas. Billy commences stuffing his mouth with them. Another spot… a super soaker station where performers shoot other performers with a stream of water. Doused performers ignore the offense. Another station where a ladder is set up and confetti is flung. People repeat and rotate, running between stations, doing the appropriate action at the appropriate spot. A lot is going on, and yet I feel like I know what is happening everywhere without having to actually watch it any more. I spend most of the show watching the void space just left of center stage, taking things in via my peripheral vision and trying to avoid looking directly at it. I’m not really interested in watching someone stuff their face with peeled bananas. I don’t want to watch someone throw stuffed animals at a wall. I don’t want to watch people balance on their sitz bones frozen in terror, I don’t want to watch people drinking beer and being chummy.
However, I do want to watch the supersoaker and a little bit of the crepe paper. These two things manage to hold some interest. Maybe it is the physics of tossed crinkly paper or the way the water seems to take the shape of a line that breaks onto another person’s back. There’s the fact that the performers getting soaked are ignoring it. These things add complexity, uncertainty and intrigue where all the other action is simple, one-dimensional, too shallow to withstand its repetition and still maintain interest-despite the busy-ness on stage. A collection of simple things does not necessarily create a complex thing.
The piece has set up a format that tells me I don’t actually have to pay attention to it. Once I’ve seen something the first time, I’ve got it, more or less. And the more doesn’t seem to be that much more, when I do check in. And so I tune out most of it and just notice changes in patterns, and I take the opportunity to do something for myself, like practice mindfulness.
By and by, fog fills the stage, there is a climax, and a screen is wheeled out with the desktop screen of a computer projected on it. It’s some generic Windows beach wallpaper while the sound of the ocean plays. Performers finish up their tasks and make their way to lay in sunbathing positions near center stage. Charles Campbell runs the circuit while everyone else rests. Eventually he joins them. This respite lasts a little while, and it’s good that it does. The audience needs this palate cleanser before the finale. Maybe the performers do too.
The finale is a competition, a vying for attention. Most of the performers are on stage, most of them are yelling, some of them are stripping. This is the performance equivalent of pop-up advertisements, ones you didn’t realize were there until their loud soundtrack makes you jump, or you close all other tabs and are bombarded with flashing garish colors, XXX’s, women’s breasts, essentially all things you just want to hit escape from or find and click the X to close. It’s loud. It’s excessive. It’s possibly offensive, except that even though one performer states he’s pooping, he doesn’t actually. Jeffrey Wells calls out audience members, performs an entertaining character, and then takes his pants off. Sam Johns exposes a nipple. Emily complains about her sweaty crotch. Charles Campbell screeches and wiggles his fingers. All the performers don whistles. The stage is full of noise and action. It’s overstimulation, and it’s not gratifying. Megan Mayer is noticeably missing from this section. Why? Conscientious abstention?
As Jay Gabler wrote in his review, “Novelty Shots could be happening in the background while someone in the foreground gave a TED talk…” It’s true, but vouching for putting something in that void space is also supposing Fire Drill would choose something that I actually wanted to watch. Perhaps it’s better left blank.