Wipe That ____ Off Your Face
nytheatre.com review by Joe Pindelski
May 21, 2009
One of the perks of reviewing for nytheatre.com is that you get to select which show you will review. Our editor, Martin Denton, sends out synopses of various theatrical goings-on, and from that list members of the nytheatre.com team select their assignments. Wipe That ______ Off Your Face, part of Breedingground Productions' Spring Fever Festival, advertises itself as an exploration of the "duet between mind and body." This duet is not only between mind and body, but also between performer and audience member, who collaborate in creating a story. I found this intellectually appealing. The duet, though, yielded few discoveries or revelations about the audience's experience and more questions about what just happened.
As audience members select their seats, they find a headset waiting for them in their chair. After donning the headset, the audience member listens to a stream of dialogue and music that is selected for them from one of three channels. There is no flipping through channels to find one you like—you listen to what you are given, separating you from the sounds of the theatre around you.
As you listen to your assigned track, three performers, also in headphones, take to the stage and begin to move. The assumption is that one of these performers is listening to the same channel as you. As the performers physically respond to what they hear, you intellectually interpret their actions with relation to what you hear on the headset. Creator Morgan Murphy's intent is to have audience members create their own unique story through this collaboration of presentation and interpretation.
The interpretation of what is presented is difficult. What is presented appears to be an extended Viewpointing session. Familiar to many who practice theatre, "The Viewpoints" are Mary Overlie's theories on dance and interpretation. Anne Bogart then adapted these theories for play staging. Murphy—who has worked with Viewpoint-influenced foolsFURY in San Francisco—and her performers have devised a series of movements that are, presumably, inspired by what is playing on the headphones, but not illustrative of what is playing on the headphones. What this means is that much of what the audience sees is non-sensical with relation to what is heard.
The nonsense that is presented involves your headset playing a Lauren Hill track while a performer crosses to a chair and embraces it ... over and over and over again. As he does this, another performer leans out of a window while a third performer seems to perform some choreography reminiscent of "Stop in the Name of Love" by the Supremes. It becomes visually and aurally cacophonous, and it is your responsibility as audience member and co-collaborator to interpret what you are seeing. Should you try and isolate the performer that you think is listening to your channel and try to understand his actions? Should you take in the entire tableau? Should you turn down the volume and take a nap? Whatever you choose—it's all within your power.
Due to the mundane verbiage of my track, involving failed attempts at letter writing, I found it very easy to tune out as the production wore on. This was complimented with the abstract actions that were presented. Initially I tired to intellectualize what might cause my speaker's inability to communicate and then relate it to the corresponding performer, but I was distracted. Trying to interpret what is going on when you have three performers onstage performing, without relation to each other but in close proximity to each other, is daunting. Building a story out of all these disparate elements, or just trying to follow one, was impossible. It was so impossible that a technician had to indicate how the audience was supposed to act at the play's conclusion (**HINT**: it involves getting out of your seat).
Conversations amongst the audience after the performance revealed a befuddlement about what just happened. We all enjoyed the performance because it was a new and different experience; however, I can't say any one of us even thought to relate the stories we had developed throughout the production's intermissionless 45 minutes. We exchanged details about what was playing on our headsets, but I don't think any of us engaged in the intended goal of creating a story from what was seen and heard. We all had a narrative supplied to us, via the headphones, so the evening was less about creating a story and more about interpreting the one we heard.
In the final analysis, it seems as though Murphy became so enamored of the idea of separating elements of the theatrical experience that she lost sight of her intended goal of creating a collaborative story. With performers and audience members isolated from each other, the end result was confusion. As a piece of experimentation, Murphy and Wipe That _____ Off Your Face succeeded; as a piece of collaboration between viewer and dancer, the piece fell flat.