Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
January 8, 2010
Once And For All We're Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen may have the most aggressively unwieldy title of any offering this theatrical season, and upon entry to The Duke On 42nd Street audiences are greeted with just the cacophony of backstage noise and aural abuse one may negatively expect upon hearing of a show conceived and performed by 13 teenagers: the theatre is very, very loud. Yet, as a member of the ensemble enters with genteel self-awareness, the show launches with focus, honesty, and directness of purpose. "By looking at us," she warns, "you have to feel old." The production delivers on this promise, and in the best of manner: Once And For All... is an unvarnished celebration and visceral confrontation of the fears and joys of adolescence. It is also the most fun I've had in a theatre in a very, very long time.
The actors place themselves on 13 chairs in a proscenium line, facing the house. What follows is a seemingly improvised vignette of roughhousing, flirtation, and excess, such as one might witness in a schoolyard or unsupervised basement den. Couples snog, girls primp, and boys attempt to break and bruise one another's arms. Some activities seem obdurately benign (the stacking of plastic cups), others a study in psychology (the sadistic torture of a Barbie doll), and others amusingly absurd (two girls attempting a conjoined cartwheel while sharing an oversized piece of underwear).
With the sound of a buzzer, the proceedings halt, the cast disbands, and the stage is restored. Then the mad sequence of events is repeated, revealing what has been witnessed as a strictly choreographed dance of primal urges pressed beyond the newly discovered limits of social polity. Repetitions feature intriguing variations: the performers lumber about as though under chemical impact, or squirm with the newly acquired awareness of carnality. Occasionally, the proceedings break down entirely—into a thrashing mosh pit, or into a timid exploration of other's bodies.
These iterations of the original scene are interspersed with monologues delivered to the audience. Once And For All... is dialogue-light, though when language is employed the text mercifully veers far off teenage angst and cliche. Rather, the revealed intimacies of these young people seer with a gangly frankness, an innocence and awareness almost impossible for older performers to achieve.
Directed by Alexander Devriendt, artistic director of the Belgium-based Ontroerend Goed theatre collective, Once And For All... comes to New York by way of the Kopergietery Theatre after a well-received international tour. New 42nd Street President Cora Cahan and Mary Rose Lloyd, Director of Programming for the New Victory Theatre, made a goal of bringing the dangerous, innovative production to New York after witnessing a performance at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Though at times violent and coursingly sexual, there is nothing exploitive about Once And For All... Younger audiences need not be protected from the production, though parents may find themselves uncomfortable confronted with the realities of adolescence. There is little to warn and all to recommend about this production, save that those in the first few rows may find themselves splattered with water, sprinkled with paint, or briefly assaulted by a pubescent beautician. Once And For All... literally explodes with energy, employing a soundtrack that encompasses operatic lilts and industrial grunge.
Written and developed by the ensemble, Devriendt, and Joeri Smet, Once And For All... is a prime example of collaborative theatre and physical performance, yet there is no proper way of describing or categorizing the production. Reminiscent of De La Guarda minus the aerial ballet, it seems an odd hybrid of performance art and a Meisner improvisation on methamphetamines. Aside from having crafted a wonderfully entertaining evening of theatre, the creative forces behind Once And For All... may well have rediscovered fire and made a better mousetrap; certainly, they have helped raise (and redefine) the bar for the 2010 New York theatre season.