New York

Fiona Templeton, You: The City

Everyday urban life considered as an art form has been a Modernist trope since Baudelaire first defined its tenets. Paris Spleen, the poet’s collection of odes to the romance of urban spectacle, crystallizes around a meditation on the city street, to Baudelaire the primary setting for the playing out of modern life’s rituals. Over 100 years later, performance artist Fiona Templeton and company sent theatergoers streetwalking down avenues that would have been paradise to the proto slummer Baudelaire: the seedy area of midtown Manhattan just west of Times Square. But YOU: The City cruised for meanings in ways that the poet, ever alert for voyeuristic correspondences, wouldn’t have recognized as art. Here, the spectator was put into the performer’s seat; the event unfolded in a two-hour series of 14 scripted one-on-one episodes, as the spectator was led to various encounters with performers that took place in a dozen locations, from a street to an apartment, from an office to a playground. But unlike such promenade performances as recent off-Broadway plays Tamara, Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding, and Road, with their vicarious yet still distanced thrills, YOU: The City was truly interactive. The piece’s subject was neither New York City nor the behavior of its inhabitants, but the continuous exchange that goes on between the individual psyche and the collective consciousness of the city. Its poetry arose from a dialectic between the elliptical dialogue and real locales, not from any gloss that could be put on bounded scenes or identifiable characters; that is to say, the performance was what you were able to make it, not what you were able to make of it.

In actual performance, this conceptual schema produced moments that were at first annoyingly cryptic—until it dawned on you that, given the piece’s conceit, nothing would be explicit. What YOU: The City presented was the essence of stock social situations—a job interview, a street harangue, an encounter in a peep show-like booth—in which the contextual details—names, reasons for meeting, point of conversation—were omitted. The performers’ continuous dialogue, mostly non sequiturs, served up a nonstop verbal barrage that, in theory, allowed for responses but in practice usually left the viewer/participant silently groping for appropriate remarks and behavior. The total effect of the piece seemed to be the feelings conjured up by particular moments: the embarrassment generated by the flamboyantly dressed woman who acted familiar and who drew stares from passersby on the street; the implied sexuality of a 42nd Street private-booth encounter; the weirdness of a rotating dialogue with another performer/audience-member pair; the relief and awkwardness at unexpectedly meeting a performer whom one knew socially.

YOU: The City could have gone further with its scenes, but that would have violated the performance’s intriguing premise: to stir up an awareness within the urban psyche, not to provoke experience into definition.

John Howell