New York

Watchface

Dance Theater Workshop

While the theater world occupies itself with tricked-up British musicals, antique revivals, and the occasional serious effort, the idea of theater continues to mutate in unexpected quarters. Rock concerts, dance and performance art, site-specific sculpture, and cabaret acts are all working changes on traditional definitions of theater. Watchface is one of the handful of groups that approach theater in the classic avant-garde performance style associated with troupes like the Living Theater, the Open Theater, and Mabou Mines. The company employs a repertory ensemble of performers, and combines mixed-media presentation and a radical sociopolitical point of view to produce a brand of performance that owes as much to contemporary culture as to traditional theater. At the same time Watchface has staked out its own turf, adopting a more naturalistic (though still stylized) acting method and specializing in topical, tabloid-lurid subjects.

The group’s most recent work examines white supremacy cults. Simultaneously a didactic piece in the Brechtian mold, and a shocker in the Artaudian vein of “cruel” theater, White blends heavyweight allusions with a sure sense of purpose, to create a vital demonstration of how theater can matter, despite a generally moribund agenda.

The performance was organized into vignettes presenting the several Bible-derived themes that provide the basis for white supremacist philosophy: the patriarchal organization with a Moses-like leader; the pervasive sense of relentless struggle to the death between the chosen and the racially polluted—and polluting—enemy; the guerillalike survival tactics; and the subordination of all action to the impending apocalypse. The characters represented the gamut of types drawn to such beliefs: the strong leader, the brave fighter, the visionary preacher, and the submissive women. Linked by a narrative about the Michigan-based group’s plan to free a comrade from prison and flee to the “Eden” of Montana, the scenes were played out in a fourth-wall manner. Paradoxically, the vivifying conceptual torque was generated by the use of standard conceits. By laying out the heinous material in a “straight,” fashion, a conceptual demilitarized zone was created in which charged subjects richocheted in a free-fire way. The breaks in the semi-naturalistic action—the direct-address monologues, the hieratic movements, the cartoonlike set—only heightened the chill of unrelievedly racist attitudes.

White could have used a few dollops of Samuel Fuller-style black humor, that sense of satiric absurdity that signals relish for the most unacceptable behavior and creates an even stronger feeling of complicity in the viewer (“Look at this! Isn’t it crazy? Isn’t it awful? Isn’t it entertaining?”). While extensive program notes were in keeping with the piece’s deliberate didacticism (they included a glossary of terms and an appeal to donate funds to an antiracism organization), one statement seemed seriously ingenuous. Watch face’s claim that “little (if any) air-time has been given for white supremacists to really explain their beliefs publicly” seemed a myopic New York-centric view. The airwaves of the rest of the country are full to overflowing with their commentary, as any lengthy drive to the accompaniment of talk radio will confirm. Nevertheless, White etched a scarifying portrait of racist bile in action.

John Howell