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Examining the rising culture of fear

Performance review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Apr 28th, 2017

Kevin Ramser and Philip Gates in Opacity

Bard College is staging several new works about surveillance. We Are Watching You provides no standard formats for addressing this issue. Instead, programs vary from fifteen minutes to an hour in duration. Each event treats time differently, some speeding up time in the future, some slowing time down in the present in order to provoke contemplation. The silly, solemn, zany, somber, absurd all move up-street in this parade of contemporary satire.

Michelle Ellsworth’s fifteen minute The Rehearsal Artist is a two-act “play” with a single actor and busy stage crew. Maximum attendance is topped at eight for any sitting. One is seated as if in a roller coaster at an amusement park, yet in the first comedic “act” everything visual is mysterious, nearly inexplicable, and absurd but flat. The roller coaster ride of hilarity occurs in part two when one can hear what is actually happening—that part is hilarious. The point is that those behind the Wizard of Oz curtain of surveillance are laughing at us nearly every second. For those in power everything is a joke and the joke is on the average Joe or Mary. The Rehearsal Artist is so memorably funny that you might want to attend a second time with a different companion. It is also a trenchant satire on psychological therapy.  

Claudia Rankin’s script for What Remains is ingenuous and entertaining, even though some dreamlike movements appear to move in slow motion. This four-person (Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Marguerite Hemmings, Jessica Pretty, and Tara Willlis) staging of an omnivorous allegory contains, dance, mime, song, and narration from “above” and from performers. The stillness of the beginning charts the womb and first steps of childhood, then the construction of the ego, the celebration of the ego, and then the decline of pride into near-senility and death. Lines like “the murmur of you sometimes reminds you of you” provides arresting thought. The song “I don’t need anybody” freights ironic pathos. The monologue “I sometimes count the commercials about depression” offers comic brio. The removal of the glittering ball-room globe from the stage through the Exit door (as well as the actors) supplies an allegory about the death of the human species. Yes, performers don’t appear for applause because that would in this circumstance be awkward. But a few did clap and the audience struggled with the tension of not clapping, either because they did not believe the show was over or that it would be blasphemy to applaud the end of the world. The feel-good moment of clapping is partly to self-reward the audience’s patience?

Opacity by Big Art Group consisted of two masked actors, Kevin Ramser and Philip Gates. The plot told the story of two people meeting via social media by cell phone and the terror of their first date. The delineated satire on the social culture of fear and its inevitable sister of blooming individual paranoia reduces exploring youth to near-robotic catatonia as they drown in the dismal swamp of cliché. Toward the end of this extended mime skit a long script is projected for people like me who consider the music employed to mere static. The script, if you can read it all quickly, is an incongruous combination of social critique, inanity, abused grammar, and brilliant observation.

In all events mime is employed, which got me to thinking that the oldest form of stage acting is mime. The Egyptians invented mime and created high art with it. Egyptian society was quite repressive and authoritarian. Is the current revival of mine among the avant-garde a sign of the times? Events are held at the Fischer Center for Performing Arts.