New York

Ping Chong, “A Race”

La Mama Annex

Since the early ’70s Ping Chong has labored at a performance art/theater form built on the principle of bricolage. The term can even be said to describe Chong’s method homophonically: individual “bricks” of fragmented found texts, multimedia visuals, dancelike movement, and music are fitted together in a tightly mortared, sensory, theatrical collage. In the past, Chong’s version of this now ubiquitous performance approach featured striking sets and visuals, ravishing lighting, precisely stylized choreography, and an extremely flat, undynamic dramatic sense, mostly due to an overdose of chopped-up text and contextual ambiguity and to a deficiency of good old storytelling vigor. Like a lot of technologically accomplished mixed-media performance, Chong’s pieces seemed inert beneath the flashy stylistics of “visual” theater.

A Race rights this imbalance. It has a narrative momentum that’s clear, if awfully simple; it’s short (or at least feels that way); and it laces Chong’s typically big, solemn questions—“what is man?”—with humor. The key to this shift is Chong’s adoption of the science-fiction-film genre. Sci-fi lets Chong’s special-effects sensibility run riot while giving the work a dramatic armature on which to hang his scattershot inquiries. What’s more, sci-fi is both serious and silly at the same time, posing an emotional conundrum which can be exploited to yield entertaining theater.

The action begins with a thin, intensely blue neon tube gliding into the large open space; like a mute, low-rent Star Wars deity, this light presides over an examination of 16 “acolytes,” young humanoid students done up in new wave/punk school uniforms (white shirts, black pants, black ties, black fingernails) who are called on to demonstrate their training in human behavior. These competitors and their “guardians,” black-clad monklike figures with Darth Vaderish heads, run through their irrational paces under the direction of a popelike patriarch (Rob List) who, from a futuristic pulpit, delivers platitudes by the yard and cracks asides to the audience like a smug, avuncular, private-school headmaster. The acolytes’ tasks mostly revolve around stock vaudevillian absurdist-wordplay devices of clichés, lists, and non sequiturs: some give answers before they hear the questions, others recite familiar phrases associated with words like “red” and “dog,” still others rattle off lists of languages. At times, the trainees are directed to engage in some group activity, as when lined up for a grotesque parody of a prom dance. Finally the winners receive their trophies (Plexiglas tubes containing dolls—the “human” shells to be assumed?); the “pope” exits, and the blue neon presence glides away.

Throughout, burbling electronic music plays continuously (itself a “bricolage” drawn from media sources), 19th-century engravings of people and animals are projected on two large discs, and “guardians” attend globelike eggs slowly undulating in softly lit, water-filled plastic cones. These elements explicitly and expressively support the narrative, so that the tableaux take on the dramatic characteristics of a sci-fi adventure—suspense, surprise, conflict—as well as exploiting the visual and multimedia imagery.

A Race ends up both mystical and funny, thoughtful and almost goofy, the work of a serious/silly sensibility perhaps best evoked when the acolytes advance toward the audience singing, a cappella, the ’50s doo-wop ballad “Sincerely.” In that moment A Race captures not only the behavioristic features of a sci-fi high school graduation, but also its ultra-earnest, self-parodying, yet still deeply felt emotions. Further, this complex techno-performance modulates its stylistic flourishes to throw out a double-edged “organic” cliché. Now that’s style.

John Howell