New York

John Jesurun, White Water

John Jesurun’s performance theater is uncommon in that it challenges its audience to think at a time when performance as entertainment or spectacle is prevalent. His productions lay out an imposing agenda of knotty dialectic—live acting/electronic presence, theater staging/media techniques, minimalist structures/melodramatic subject matter—then don’t always bother to synthesize the clashing oppositions into a tidily coherent statement. While his rigorous concepts sometimes lead to a clogged-up, impacted presentation, White Water was a stellar example of how such a heady approach can yield a hearty mulligan stew of performance possibilities. White Water never flagged in its deconstructive purpose: to explore relentlessly the structures and vocabulary of telling a tale. But this work’s “subject” (an investigation into a religious miracle) and its presentation conceits (TV talk show and an interrogatory legal/theological inquiry) provided a charged dramatic interest as well.

The performance started out as a news investigation by a reporter, then mutated into an all-purpose cross-examination by a constantly shifting “cast” of lawyers, doctors, reporters, and clergymen, all portrayed by the same three live actors. These three also appeared from time to time in various guises on the 20 video monitors that surrounded the playing space. In elliptical, fast-paced dialogue that was synchronized to the split second with prerecorded dialogue spoken by the monitors’ “talking heads,” the truths of fairy tale-like anecdotes were exploded into a dizzying fog of multiple meanings. As the investigation unfolded, mysteries were compounded rather than solved. More answers raised more questions. Who lied and why? Can scientific/rational thought disprove metaphysical events? Was the miraculously revived dog really dead before its resurrection? (There was a fair amount of deadpan humor in White Water’s workings, both in its actual text and in performer Michael Tighe’s exasperated delivery.)

As always in Jesurun’s performances,there was a double-layered metaplay going on: who were these “characters” in front of us, and why were they chasing after this particular story? The staging also enmeshed the audience in these questions with some basic but effective strategies. The three performers occupied a steeply raked stage which held anonymous chairs and desks. This brightly lit, generic, bureaucratic office was surrounded on all sides by the audience, who were in turn flanked by a circle of video monitors. Literally looking around and through the performance became a telling objective correlative for the work’s multidirectional approach. Christian Marclay’s uncharacteristically muted sound collage and some long-take scenes on the monitors provided a kind of aural and visual ambient hum to the dialogue’s clipped rhythms, just barely enough present to be yet another unresolved “question.”

The work’s methodological premises and narrative structure gave it a clear beginning and middle, but no real end. There was a sort of epiphanylike twist: the lawyer/priest suddenly recounted a “miraculous” event on videotape, and the drama was taken over by the talking heads as the live performers disappeared into darkness. Given Jesurun’s deconstructive conceits, no real conclusions seemed possible. But dramatically, that decision meant that the piece drifted on, multiplying possible meanings beyond several points of diminishing interest. A performance rhetoric as richly allusive as Jesurun’s demands condensation, and the near-90-minute length of White Water’s sprawl could have benefited from a judicious editing. Such compression would only have strengthened the memorable mood created by its singular methods.

John Howell