Friday, September 19, 2014

Western Society (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I have seen many an attempt to blend electronic media and live theatre. They rarely work, but when they do the results often end up magical. Essential is that the media feels part of an organic whole, rather than stapled onto a performance.

Western Society, a US premiere by the Gob Squad at the REDCAT Theatre, manages this with a wonderful finesse. It left me feeling quite moved, thinking about parts of my own life--and all this from the examination of one two-plus minute video on youtube over and over and over again.

Credit: David Baltzer
Sounds dreadfully arty and pretentious, doesn't it? But no! Well, arty, yes--in the best sense. Keep in mind if what you're looking for is a compelling plot, a conflict between fascinating characters with entire lives at stake, mysteries to  be solved--the standard fare of story-telling--then this show probably will prove quite the surprise. Maybe a pleasant one. Because Western Society ends up as a carefully constructed interactive experience looking at moments of time, fragments of life, the relationship we feel between those who know and those we see and how we project our own lives onto others--but how that still works as a connection, or can anyway. How that evolves into something else, sometimes positive. Or sad. Or both. Well, often both.

Credit: David Baltzer
So no murderers to catch. No love affairs struggling against huge obstacles to be born. Nobody commits suicide or homicide or even picks someone's pocket. Instead the audience watches and takes part in the examination and re-creation of a short little video. Performers discuss this, share with audience what they feel as they perform the actions in the video--recreating tiny slices of life without any context at all, and so naturally enough impose/create their own contexts. Nor does it stop there. For the only contexts the performers can really use are their own lives--which in turn becomes quite revealing, melancholy, equal parts foolish and wise, weak and strong.

Not for everybody, not by a long shot. But my imagination found itself captured, while the analytical part of my mind strongly suspects a lot less of this whole performance was left to chance than might at first seem. This is a compliment, incidentally. Each actor/performer seemed totally "in the moment" and (for example)
Credit: David Baltzer
seemed to be answering questions for the very first time. Mind you, I wouldn't be shocked to learn the questions they asked each other were new each performance! Neither would I be surprised to learn they were asked the same questions.

I walked away with that much belief in the performer's skills-- Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom and Bastian Trost.

Although, to be fair, I did feel the pace was a bit slow. On the other hand, the more I think on it the more I suspect that deliberate. European theatre and film does tend to take their time more, but the whole show seemed so carefully crafted the effect seemed planned. So often we hear or read the admonishment "leave the audience wanting more' whereas Western Society ends at the point of "that's exactly enough." Accidental? Seems unlikely.

Western Society plays through September 20, 2014 at the REDCAT Theatre 631 West 2nd Street. You can make reservations at (213) 628-2772.

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