nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
October 27, 2011
The doors of Incubator Arts Project shut. A digital clock on the far wall, though six hours off from the actual time, shows us that it is time for the performance to begin. Pause. People in the audience rustle a bit, folding programs, scratching. It all sounds very loud. Pause. Then a door above opens and performer Henry Vick, wearing a lab coat over a tuxedo, makes his way down the stairs to the stage. Only…he’s silly! Oh thank goodness. Suddenly this piece of very experimental theatre, created by the United Broadcasting Theater Company (disciples of Robert Wilson and The Wooster Group) seems so much more accessible. Vick makes his way downstage and goes to address the audience—he’s very awkward, deliberately so—a scientist informing us of the experiment that is about to happen, only he’s terrified of/terrible at public speaking. When he’s done with his speech, he whispers to the board operators—should he take the mic off or leave it there? Flustered, he does move it, and we all laugh.
Vick moves to sit behind another microphone—he has transformed now, less overtly comical and with a bit of a manic edge. Andrew Gilchrist has been standing, barefoot and blindfolded, onstage this entire time and is now addressed. Vick asks the unseeing Gilchrist to guess what playing card he is holding up. Again and again and again, Gilchrist blindly, randomly and unsuccessfully guesses the cards.
Arcane Game is performed in five parts. The aforementioned first one is the most plot driven/accessible—by the second, Louiza Collins, Gwen Ellis and Arielle Lever join the men as part of the ensemble and the performance shifts towards a Viewpoints-inspired land of grid-walking, with a man and woman engaged in a wrestling match over and over and over again as another performer crawls across the floor, blindfolded, picking up playing cards.
The program states: “In Arcane Game, five "players" struggle to reproduce their visions (the visions sent to them by Roxy Snodgrass) through a bizarre rite/experiment designed to find some meaning in (get some answers out of) this bleak and empty universe.” Who is Roxy Snodgrass? She’s someone, and this is all because of her, but we never know her and she becomes forgotten. There are players and it is clearly a game, but we don’t know the rules, so it’s difficult to follow that as a throughline. Arcane means “known or understood by very few; mysterious; secret; obscure; esoteric” and this show certainly lives up to its name. While it is clear that there are many rules to this performance, very few are revealed to us. Devices are used, images recur, but meaning eludes. What we do have are some very visceral images—a virtual reality surgeon, a man being pummeled while doused with baby powder, wrestling matches that conjure images of rape. The images and sounds surround us, vying for our attention, but do not come together into something cohesive—and in that respect perhaps it is a very apt simulation/comment on our modern lives.
Arcane Game uses many of the tropes of experimental theatre—mechanical and repeated movement, an ever-changing soundscape, black and white costumes, tv screens, recitation of text that appears to have no connection to the action, barefoot performers, and the list goes on. Differentiating Arcane Game are the fact that all of the performers are wearing earbuds (and theoretically receiving directions through these earpieces) and a very inventive device in which performers play a complicated game of dubbing to Robert Altman’s film Quintet. The film is playing, muted, on screens behind them, while the performers onstage, each playing a different part in the movie, say the lines from the film. A sound effect, like the sound a Mac makes when you send an email, plays each time the shot on the screen changes focus, and the actors swivel in and out of the playing space as it does.
Director Jamie Poskin has created an experience—non-linear, deliberately nonsensical, and visceral. I did not understand it, but, in its multitude of varied ideas and images, messy and complex, it certainly does give one a lot to think of. And perhaps, according to United Broadcasting Theater Company, that is life.