Too Much Input Makes Audrey Go Blind[1]

I saw the Neo-Futurists yesterday. The tone was different from most plays I’ve seen, striking something akin to an improv show but with a little more finesse. More like sketch comedy, except it’s not all comedy. I liked their commitment to honesty and directness; what they call “non-illusory”. But does this sort of show even warrant a review? I mean I think so. Someone has to cover it. Just because it’s a regular event doesn’t make it not a live event. And it’s different every time, though certain plays can stay in the repertory for long period. The audience participation makes you stay awake and engaged; the “Curtain!” ending each play prompts you to shout out the next play you want to see from the “Menu” given to you at the door. Ideally they get through all 30 in 60 minutes, racing against their own clock, making it feel like part-theater, part-sport.

But is this art? Lines were frequently fudged; this always irritates me. I wonder if the under-memorized lines were from older sketches that weren’t as fresh, or from new ones that weren’t as rehearsed? Either way, it’s precisely that lack of precision that makes me doubt the whole project. As in, you’ve shown me you can do an impressive number of plays in a short amount of time, but have you shown me anything else? There were a few plays that were inclined to depth, but for the most part easy humor predominated. In the end, they could point to something profound but lacked the time to get there. It felt to me like the general message of each play was something like: “I had a thought; it struck me as insightful and/or interesting. Maybe?” And then the timer’s up and it’s time to go home.

But… I’m a sucker for people exerting effort; “task-based performance.” And how is this not the ultimate task-based performance? They’re racing against themselves; by definition almost every show is a failure in that they cannot get through all 30 micro-plays in one hour. This Sisyphean effort endears me to them, as does the fact that this particular troupe of “Neos” is brand-new.

One play I enjoyed, “20. Notice of Change in Terms of Tenancy (just because it’s legal doesn’t make it fair)”, targeted the agent of San Francisco gentrification—California’s Ellis Act. In it the ensemble made an audience member vacate his seat and sit in a different one, because the cost of the seat he was sitting in had gone up from $10 to $131 (and he was, unsurprisingly, unwilling to pay the difference). I had been searching for a sign that this company had developed their own voice, politic, aesthetic, and here was a start. That said, thinking about their politics made me wonder what I often do: where do these ensemble members live? Do they take part in the gentrification process they’re critiquing? As artists—mostly white, I might add—are they exempt from charges of taking over San Francisco merely because they aren’t part of the tech industry?

In another favorite of mine, “25. Lose Myself to Dance,” one ensemble member discussed the merits of “capital D Dance” vs. the awfulness of casual, at-party “dancing”. While he spoke, another ensemble member did such unbearable casual dancing and seemed to be having a great time. I liked the movement ones, but was it because I love dance, or because then there was less chance of them fumbling their lines?

Another favorite: “2. walking the labyrinth / prison of my own mind.” Another favorite: “12. This play is the proposal of this play, go.” Another favorite: “14. [that last play] + soup.” Another favorite: “30. Poor Man’s Sleep No More.”

The problem is I could go on and on. No, the problem is I like depth, not breadth. Maybe the problem can be summed up in the title of one aptly named play: “3. A Sophomoric, But Nonetheless Cathartic, Anthem for Adulthood,” in which the entire cast took streamers and kazoos and danced to “Tomorrow” from Annie. Which I enjoyed, but: do we buy that the “nonetheless cathartic” descriptor justifies it being “sophomoric”? Does that make it worth showing onstage?  Has the ensemble cared for their audience, or are we just there to congratulate their athleticism regardless of skill, depth, beauty?

By the end, I was left mainly in a vague state of overstimulation. I wondered how to measure the efficacy of bombarding the audience with thirty mini-ideas instead of just one or maybe two big ones. Are we that tired of “big ideas”? In a way, this format fits perfectly with San Francisco’s tech culture, and its micro-short attention span. You’ll have no trouble paying attention because of the yelling every two minutes. But are they truly engaging me if I’ve been robbed of the choice to check out?

[1] Referring to the neo-futurists’ weekly show, “too much light makes the baby go blind.”