Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good)
nytheatre.com review by Jonny Cigar
January 7, 2011
Gob Squad’s re-imagining of Kitchen, an Andy Warhol absurdist S&M film starring Edie Sedgwick, serves as a welcome reminder of a time when perhaps Americans truly, as the title suggests, “never had it so good.” Imagine trying to sleep soundly through the '60s knowing full well that all those psychedelic drugs, alcohol, and righteous cigarettes will eventually catch up with you and give you heart disease, cancer, psychosis—oh and by the way, AIDS is only a decade or so away. In those days the consequences of substance abuse simply weren’t on the minds of the American psyche…and in Gob Squad’s Warhol-esque factory, that psyche is channeled through humorous simulacra of days gone by.
The Gob Squad factory however is up-to-date, steeped in the ever-encroaching multimedia facets of today’s theatre. A movie screen takes up the entire stage, floor to ceiling, and immediately upon entering the theatre an actor directs the audience to walk behind the screen and observe the set. Actors are casually milling about three separate rooms and in each room a camera is poised to film: in one there is a bed, the next is a kitchen, and in the last there is a couch.
As the lights dim, it becomes clear that the live action will take place out of sight, projected on the screen, uninterrupted for the next 80-120 minutes the show is scheduled to run. 80-120 minutes?
What ensues (on screen) is a beautiful and tragic attempt at recreating moments of Warhol-existentia as the plot utilizes his infamous screen tests (silent film portraits of Factory regulars) to propel the action forward. At times the actors (who are playing themselves: Sean, Sarah, Bastian, and Simon) are unaware that they are being filmed, much like Warhol’s screen tests. As aptly stated by Simon, the play’s narrator, in these moments a kind of “seductive beauty” reveals itself in each actor and their “true charisma” shines through. When aware that the camera is on (it’s on the whole time) the dialogue is purposely contrived; a seemingly unscripted improvisation with the actors playing out sexual fantasies or indulging in the liberation of the female body.
There is no plot, per se—only a necessity to bridge the gaps between screen tests and to reveal the innocence of a drug-laden, sexual-revolutionized era. And to help reveal that innocence and fill the gaps comes: audience participation! Gob Squad’s manifesto cites that at the heart of any project is “an attempt to create a live experience that directly engages and often interacts with audiences.”
Impressed by the seamless transition of two audience members to Factory participants in this Gob Squad absurdo-'60s experiment, I was convinced they had to be plants. A man from the front row was sent to bed and asked to fall asleep (he went right for it without hesitation) and a girl was planted on a couch, true screen test fashion: just her and the camera. Then, the unthinkable: Simon picked me to join in the action. Weighing the pros and cons (I was there to review, but could I really be the first audience member to decline involvement?) I accepted my fate.
Backstage the crew outfitted me with a headset and microphone. In just a moment I would be propelled into Kitchen, playing Simon as he sat out in the audience speaking into a mic for only my ears, directing me to move and speak.
Immersed in the action, the remaining 45 minutes of the show was lost to me as I smoked cigarettes and was directed to talk about an ex-boyfriend and stare into the camera caressing my lips. The experience was thrilling, but I wanted to know how the projection of my role was integrated and how the show concludes from the audience’s perspective!
Thus I returned. And seeing the piece back-to-back revealed the true talents of these performers. They swapped roles, playing different characters, and the dialogue proved to be improvised as similar stories gave way to different jokes and different takes. Some sections were shorter, some longer than the previous performance, hence the variance in running time.
At times however the effect of improvised dialogue stunts the flow of the piece, though perhaps intentionally, and it’s fun to imagine the ghost of Warhol in a corner of the theatre, happily nodding with approval. This is the essence of Kitchen: anything can happen, and nothing may happen. When the improvisation is fluid—which is the case for a majority of the performance—tawdry bouts of sexual tension exchange themselves with revealing and poignant moments between actor/actor and actor/audience participant.
It’s a risky business plucking people out of an audience and dropping them into roles crucial to the advancement of a piece. However, “risk” is certainly what the decade of the '60s was about, and Gob Squad happily accepts and embraces this risk without fear of what lies ahead, even if it means a longer-than-anticipated run time to achieve what it was we never had so good.