Mortal COIL

Jennifer Krasinski on Tina Satter’s Ancient Lives and the COIL Festival

Tina Satter, Ancient Lives, 2015. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 7, 2015. Jess Barbagallo and Eliza Bent. Photo: Paula Court.

AH, TECHNOLOGY! The bogeyman that threatens to fetter our bodies to gadgets, entangle our synapses in wires, thieve our memories, erode our free will, etc. Popular stories remain riddled with the plagues and punishments that befall humanity when it believes it possesses the power to create the new, to exceed the limits of the body, to trump mortality. And in the end we always save ourselves somehow, don’t we? (Spoiler alert: There are no spoilers anymore.) How dispiriting to realize that our devices might be updated with greater frequency than the narratives we spin around them.

However, there is a bracing irony when the live arts take on this subject. As I sat through performances over the past few weeks—some part of P.S. 122’s COIL Festival and some not—I watched as the space of theater contained bodies IRL while negotiating narratives woven around technologies. This is nothing new to American experimental theater. So many of its tropes are the products of this intersection: performers captured and transmitted from the stage via live video feed to the audience sitting before them; an actor’s body convulsing due to a fictional glitch. (A question for a future essay: What distinguishes a tradition from a trope with regard to the avant-garde?) That said, there was plenty to see regarding the current state of the art.

The TEAM’s solid RoosevElvis addressed the split personalities that can result from loneliness, a lack of self-worth, and maybe—just maybe—a history that doesn’t quite realize it’s time has passed. Ann is a solitary meatpacking plant worker and closeted lesbian whose humdrum life is punctured by a failed affair with Brenda, who she met online. Because the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum, Ann’s inability to live as her real self places her at the mercy of dueling alter egos: President Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley, archetypes of long-ago masculinities. A makeshift “video village” on stage throughout the show was a nod to cinema and television production. Video screens served as fifth walls, playing off-stage story moments: Ann working at the plant; footage of American highways. At other times, these also played clips from Thelma and Louise. Like Ann, however, the soul of this production was wrestled over by two forces—theater and video—each promising a certain virtue while inadvertently quashing the play’s potential to fully self-realize. The resulting schizophrenia was engaging, though could have used some much needed focus to put a finer point on it all.

Mike Iveson, Sorry Robot, 2015. Performance view, New Ohio Theatre, New York, January 6, 2015. Tanya Selvaratnam and Anthony R. Brown. Photo: Paula Court.

Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE wrestles a different kind of fractured self, one that’s jacked into invisible networks over which Schneider seamlessly presides as master and puppet at the same time. For the first part of the performance, he monologues as though on fast-forward. Part confessional, part tutorial, his spastic text snaps between subjects ranging from AA recovery steps to quantum mechanics to love connections. To describe what unfolds from there would give far too much away, for Schneider and his crack team of creative collaborators have near-perfected their own brand of intelligent spectacle. Using only lights, sound, sensors, mics and a single curtain, they wholly transform the performance space into an unsettling, unidentifiable elsewhere. Not since Richard Foreman’s productions have I seen interiority and exteriority collapsed so compellingly, carving out a singular space in which both actors and audience perform. Even the glitch, my least favorite of all the tech tropes in contemporary culture, serves real purpose here: as mere interruption, not obstacle, to an inevitable forward momentum.

Far smarter and more astute than it may initially appear, composer/performer Mike Iveson’s lo-fi Sci-Fi musical Sorry Robot refuses a cold mastery of form in favor of producing a goofball satire that undermines the usual dictations. Set in a creepy Florida hotel-cum–software R&D lab, the story riffs on a genre standard: What happens if one day, robots are given feelings? One answer: a more empathic workforce with a penchant for bad wigs and colorful shorts! Another answer: extreme absurdity at the cusp of transcendent delight. Iveson shines most brightly in his songwriting—singularly weirdo and so very wonderful—which features choruses like “I’ve got feelings / emotional feelings” and “This one goes out to the children of my creditors / The boys who buy beers for my obituary editors.” The play is his first as a writer, and any unevenness or lack of refinement is that of an artist exploring new territory—altogether human.

There is a strikingly synthetic quality to Tina Satter’s seductive and mesmerizing Ancient Lives, a play that entwines adolescence and obsolescence in order to un-tell a familiar story. Satter’s script blends words both borrowed (The Crucible, Romeo and Juliet) and her own to write the fates of three teenaged girls who leave their families to follow a beloved teacher into the woods. If the Internet has glamoured innumerable artists into confusing pastiche with proudly new productions, Satter seems to have devoured and digested her chosen references to create her very own uncanny valley, one that echoes with fairy tales, Mario Bava films, American teen flicks, and more without falling to imitation. What the hell is water? a young goldfish asks in a joke that David Foster Wallace made famous. Which is all to say that ubiquity begets invisibility sooner or later. Ancient Lives is ironically about This Very Moment (the Digital Age, call it what you prefer), but rather than retreat into critique—pointing to the condition in which we live in order to point to the condition in which we live—Satter finds a fresh way to see.