nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
April 25, 2009
In biological terms, free radicals cause reactions in the body that can create disease. In political and cultural terms, radicals function in much the same way—challenging, disrupting, and transforming the social and political body. In both meanings, the importance of radicals is defined by the systems they exist in and are cast in opposition to.
So what does Object Collection's Problem Radical(s) stand in opposition to? Created by playwright/director Kara Feely and her collaborators, Problem Radical(s) seems to stand in opposition to any sort of systematic form in general. Problem Radical(s) isn't about the subject or definition of radicals per se—in fact it doesn't seem intended to be "about" anything. Instead, Problem Radical(s) would seem to demonstrate the very concept of radical energy itself—the constant recreation and destruction that occurs in the furnace rather than the material that disappears or emerges from it.
The result in this case is a sprawling canvas of moments that are crafted and to at least some extent rehearsed—though apparently the structure and order of Problem Radical(s) is largely improvised—but which in the end result in an experience of orchestrated chaos. Physically, the four performers engage in gesture work both alone and cooperatively that defies contextualization and meaning behind a continual wall of sound that is as esoteric and anarchic as the piece itself. The text of the piece is delivered through headset microphones that make it blend with rather than sit above the ambient sound, and it is delivered with seemingly arbitrary rhythmic patterns and pitches that make it virtually incomprehensible much of the time.
Visually, Hannah Dougherty's installation design is reminiscent of the aftermath of a tornado hitting some sort of existential secondhand store. Knickknacks and piles of clothing—where pink tutus and radiation suits mingle with more mundane garments—are strewn everywhere, while miniature dirigibles parked to the side emit sporadic electronic sounds. On one side video monitors show banal scenes from our more ordered and ordinary daily life—such as people in an office or eating at a food court—while a camera pans across the audience to prepare us for the less-than-eagerly-anticipated moment when the audience will see itself on those same screens.
Problem Radical(s) sets up a situation where pretty much anything can happen—and while this may be the point, it is also the biggest risk of experimental work in this vein: things may be unexpected but they are never really surprising. As a whole, the piece begins and ends in the same state of clutter and confusion; there is no "order" set up in opposition other than the tepid images on the video monitors and the notion of narrative theatre in general. What is missing, even in an abstract or rarified form, is conflict—something which would seem necessary in an exploration of the concept of "radicalness" and is usually pretty helpful no matter what form of theater one presents.
This lack of conflict is notable in the individual movements within piece as well. Problem Radical(s) is a series of seemingly random and inconsequential actions that have no direct implications on each other, and are invested with no sense of urgency or importance. The movements throughout the piece—much of which involves switching to and from randomly assembled wardrobe ensembles—are begun and ended without being pushed through to some kind of artistic realization or being stopped by a more compelling force or action, and they seem to have no importance to those performing the actions and no effect on the performers around them. As a result Problem Radical(s) never seems to manifest those elemental forces of creation and destruction that might render this esoteric piece, if not comprehensible, at least viscerally compelling.
Nor is it, at least for me, aesthetically compelling. For all of its freedom, the various movements and configuration Problem Radical(s) conjures aren't particularly interesting, and are rather surprisingly repetitive in their nature. What they amount to instead is an incessant onslaught of sensory clutter with little rhythmic variation as a whole. The complete lack of stillness or quiet coupled with the lack of investment and seeming pointlessness created for me an event that felt tedious when it wasn't excruciating. No doubt the process of undermining the recognizable is the point, but for me there is little here to relish.