Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "Batch," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Those who see a work of avant-garde theatre and don’t get it, often refer to the intellectual gap that lies between the mind of the artist and the more common understanding of the experience their art describes. Sometimes this common judgment contains a note of accuracy and rightful condemnation, at other times, the artist has truly broken away from society and pioneered a new pathway of understanding that humanity must now tread behind and follow.

Most often, those complaining against the artists are referring to works like Alice Tuan’s BATCH: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle, now in production by New Paradise Laboratories (NPL). However, in Tuan’s case, a condemnation of her artistic dissonance is completely justified.

None of this condemnation stems from Batch’s failure to titillate the audience, or attempt to display the kind of reckless hedonism that takes place at these parties (though personally, this play counts as one more example of American Puritanism in art; in Europe, families with children wouldn’t hesitate in attending this play).

The fault of the play lies in its inability to move away from mere surface level exploration of the concepts presented as comprising a typical Batch party. Though Tuan litters her play with images, references to, (and occasionally acts) of bisexuality, hermaphroditism, remorse, wantonness, etc., she fails to achieve any greater integration of these into some exploration of a deeper concept or theme (such as the will towards self-destruction, transgression, Dionysian impulses, etc.). Instead, Batch plays like the Ph.D. dissertation of an academic who sits in her armchair and uses her imagination to explore the "concepts" of a bachelor/ette party, while never attending one of these drunken spectacles in person.

Sorry, but sociology, literary theory, and psychology can’t properly substitute for art. NPL makes a wicked attempt to get into the psyche of Batch’s participants through image, sound, concept, and multimedia memories, but the actual result is flat, as concept laden and untranslatable into real experience as an MRI of the brain. Both cases show what the mind might be doing, without showing the sensory phenomena of the actual experience itself.

To give another example: a voiceover punctuated each of Batch’s various rounds, making inane statements like "Batch: a time machine where time stands still," and "Batch: a place to create memories you may not want to remember." As satirical send-ups of Vegas ad slogans they’re inconsistent with the attempt of the play; as real expressions of the character’s mental states or intentions, they’re just one more inane portrayal of the mindsets of the participants. In either case, Tuan confirms her distance from her subject matter, treating concepts as genuine attitudes.

Moreover, the most interesting concept of the night-the notion that the affianced couple "haven’t even touched each other at all"-Tuan leaves completely undeveloped, setting it as a mere sentiment or boundary for understanding, if as anything at all.

I can’t blame the performers for any failure in this production. I’ve rarely seen a group so committed to their craft, particularly Aaron Mumaw (the groom) and McKenna Kerrigan (the bride), the latter of whom gave an absolutely dazzling performance. Whoever they might be offstage, all of them dissolved completely into their onstage personas, with no awareness of any reality save that of the text and each other.

Nor can I fault Whit MacLaughlin’s direction, with his hyperkinetic movement and energy, testosterone-charged attitude, and applied mix of aggression and sexuality. Moreover, I’ve never seen a better-orchestrated or enacted set of multimedia segments woven so seamlessly into a play.

When I walked into the theatre, the set and lighting directors had already achieved an intoxicating mood, one that could’ve by itself engendered a work of genius. Disco balls and trance music spun in the background, and a raised boxing platform surrounded by rows of chairs dominated the stage. Huge multimedia displays hung behind the chairs on all four sides, and a recording showed Mumaw walking through their frames looking inward, giving the audience a knowing smirk. Kerrigan appeared on the stage, barefoot in a red party dress, fingers crossed on one hand held behind her back, shooting flirtatious smiles at the audience, occasionally taking enough time to let her thoughts and gaze return to her parading fiancé. Waiting for the production to begin, I prepared myself for one mind-fuck of an evening.

But the evening devolved quickly from there. Sometimes, the (artistically) healthy experience of thousands doesn’t need an artist to come along and break it down into concepts, especially a play that became not just a simple (and tolerable) deconstruction, but a work by a playwright who took the totality of a batch party and reduced it to the level of an algebra lesson.

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