nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
January 8, 2010
It's tempting to call Richard Maxwell's Ads a multimedia piece, for theatrical events that involve extensive use of pre-recorded video tend to fall under that heading. But what do you call a piece of theatre in which video is the only medium present? Is it still a live performance?
If Ads is a live performance, it's certainly not one in any traditional sense of the word. What Ads is instead is a series of self-written and self-delivered monologues by a group of people captured on video talking very simply about what they believe in. At no time are performers physically present during the piece.
Is Ads even a performance, live or not? Reciting their own presumably un-edited words in what appear to be un-directed recitations captured in very simple video recordings, a colorful array of New Yorkers go into details about their beliefs and philosophies of life. Ranging in age, background, ethnicity, class, and occupation, this diverse group has come up with a wide variety of ideas and just as wide a variety of ways to articulate them—but since they are stating their own beliefs in their own ways to just a camera, are they in fact performing?
One of the things Ads seems to be attempting to do is what experimental theatre is generally expected to do—challenge the form. Can Ads even be called theatre at all? On its face one would be inclined to say no, but, then again, it's not really a film either. A series of clips without post-editing or pre-arranged shot selection, Ads has not only stripped the live actor from the stage, but has seemingly stripped away a century of advancement in filmmaking back to its barest essentials. It feels more like theatre, live actors or not, as the subjects are captured and projected on a nearly invisible screen the size of a doorway that makes them appear life-sized and three dimensional. They can't feel our presence, but it seems as if we can feel theirs. Adding to the illusion is that they appear to step up and down from a physically present three-dimensional wooden block, with accompanying sound effects.
And that is really all there is to Ads. However one would choose to define it, Maxwell has created in Ads a work of almost unnerving simplicity. In succession we hear about a woman's uneasiness with what she sees as the pseudo-community created by Facebook, a man who sees life as a hero's journey, another man who talks about the music of the planets, a young woman who sees music as a blessing, a woman who talks about the dilution of meaning of the word "believe"—and as it slowly dawned on the audience that this really was going to be all there was, some audience members walked out of the performance I attended. Perhaps it seemed like a one-note artistic gimmick—like Andy Warhol's Sleep—that might be an interesting intellectual notion that was excruciating to watch.
For me this wasn't the case, and I found that Ads justifies itself in a larger way. It seems clear that paramount to Maxwell's purpose is to have us hear these people who might not otherwise have been heard—whose "ads" would normally have been crowded out by other ads—in as unadulterated a form as possible. What Ads does is to force one to listen to other people one would not normally listen to as a "live" event, cutting through artifice in an efficient and authentic way that either a straight theatrical or cinematic approach would find hard to duplicate. Had Maxwell created a documentary film there would be much more psychological distance between us and the people speaking to us—there is something magical and immediate about even the illusion of sharing the same space. Had these people come to the theatre night after night to recite their thoughts they would have then become performers, unconsciously tailoring the delivery of their beliefs to the approbation of the audience. That these non-actors could have been convinced to share their beliefs like this is doubtful to begin with, but if they had, the process would have transformed them into something else. The format in which these stories are presented is vital to how these stories are heard.
And once you buckle down and settle in, the people being projected turn out to have some pretty interesting ideas and some pretty entertaining ways to express them. One comes away impressed by the depth, breadth, and uniqueness of the people we jostle with on the subway everyday—not a bad thing to be reminded of, really. Whether it's theatre or not, for me it was an hour well spent.