Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: Underground Sci-Fi Rides Again

By Ed Malin

LaMaMa has brought together the old and new work of Robert Patrick, a playwright they have supported since 1965.  HI-FI | WI-FI | SCI-FI is a unique collection of five moving short plays directed by Billy Clark of CultureHub and Jason Trucco., who also designed the far-out sets.  (An additional segment, which I did not get to see, is directed by Il Kyu Park, via live video link from Korea on certain dates.)  Robert Patrick, gay theater pioneer and the man hailed by Samuel French in 1972 as “New York’s Most Produced Playwright”, gives the audience a variety of minimalist science-fiction thrills as, in the span of an hour, he takes us through different rooms (no chairs) in LaMaMa’s basement.  In some rooms, there is live music and free beer.
Action is a play about a writer, narrated by flamboyant avant-garde veteran Agosto Machado. Machado, who sits at a table next to a typewriter, is not the protagonist, however.  As he speaks, John Gutierrez, wearing only undies, emerges from a large pile of crumpled paper on the floor and takes his seat by the typewriter.  The young, mostly bare writer struggles to write two pages a day, but this may be due to his gorgeous love interest, played by Yeena Sung.  There is much romance, and yet Gutierrez does some one-handed typing even while his lover is on his lap.  But who is actually writing the story?  Action is performed with bongo accompaniment.
Camera Obscura, written around the time of the Vietnam War, is a shockingly modern piece about something resembling internet dating.  Yeena Sung and John Gutierrez  appear on two screens on opposite sides of the room.  Despite technical challenges that sometimes slow down or blur the audio, the two performers tell each other how happy they are to be speaking and vow to meet in person and have a life together.  The administrators of the service cut the pair’s chat off after two minutes; there is a huge line of people waiting for their turn.  Joe Levasseur’s lighting design helps convey desperation poised to become hope.
photo by Minji Lee
All In The Mind was my favorite play in this program.  Agosto Machado and Valois Mickens, on video, tell the story of a future world where everyone is mentally connected.  This world, population 10 billion, has been at peace for the last three generations, ever since people could suddenly read each other’s thoughts.  The future world is so different from ours, the two characters feel compelled to relate how difficult life was before the change.  All this is done in a cooperative style, one performer completing the other’s sentences and wandering around the four screens which surround the room.  At first, people were scared that others would know their secrets.  We are told there were exactly 789 reasons people hated each other.  Yes, back in the day there was a form of abstract fiction called “philosophy”, and an improved type called “science”, which had the potential to work, as long as one knew everything.    It is a heartwarming, John Lennon-sounding tale, and I hope we someday achieve that happy, life-affirming type of compassion.  The audience is given confetti and is encouraged to throw it at each other.
Simultaneous Transmission is another amazing artistic statement about conflict.  On video, Valois Mickens, Agosto Machado and John Gutierrez, dressed in white, speak of the dangerous enemy that threatens their way of life.  On stage, the same performers, dressed in black and carrying black protest signs, express similar sentiments on behalf of their own faction.  Both sides prepare for battle and demonstrate several of their destructive techniques.  Do they realize who similar they and their adversaries are?
The final piece, Everything Is Plausible, is a world premiere.  The host, Harold Lehman, informs us that in the year 2125, technology allows for constant remakes of old movies (an example is Gone With The Wind starring Meryl Streep).  Way back in 2017, we are told, “All In The Mind” launched the film careers of Agosto Machado and Valois Mickens.   Of course, this the perfect time to recreate part of the scene with equally prominent actors John Gutierrez and Yeena Sung, standing inside large cardboard appliance boxes.  Soon enough, the author himself appears on video and sings some of his poetic wisdom for us.
This is a lively evening of pieces spanning decades, which, thanks to the video and streaming technology involved, feel very fresh and timely.  Technical Director Jesse Ricke and composers John Dyer and John King create a wonderfully immersive environment.  Hats off to LaMaMa for again showcasing the work of Robert Patrick.  His play Kennedy’s Children, which was on Broadway in the 1970s, has a revival in the works.