Someone in the Ghost Box Told Me It Was You
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
February 23, 2006
There is a lot to say about Someone in the Ghost Box Told Me it Was You, currently playing at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. Performed by the relatively new company TEMPORARY distortion under the direction of Kenneth Collins, the piece distinguishes itself from the majority of plays one is likely to see from moment the audience arrives in the performance space.
The stage consists mainly of two elaborately wired transparent boxes, about the size of a refrigerator. In each box there are two actors nearly on top of each other. At least ten small screens pepper the stage and, when the lights are out, they shine like electronic stars in an otherwise pitch night sky. Except for the boxes, the televisions, and the wires, the set is completely bare.
The claustrophobic box is a highly effective dramatic tool, as it becomes a symbol that changes in the mind of the audience based on whatever text is being uttered by the performers. At times, it appears to be a phone booth, in other moments, a loft bed, and more than a few times, in its shape and dimensions, it is likely to remind the audience of a coffin. This technique of staging almost the entirely play within these extremely limited spaces, a technique that this company has worked with before, is reason enough to check out one of TEMPORARY distortion’s works. You are not likely to have seen anything quite like it.
That said, there is a good deal about TEMPORARY distortion that you are likely to recognize, material that is familiar from other sources. The minimalist deadpan style of acting is impossible not to associate with Richard Maxwell; the lights and sound, with their levels and distortion, are similarly reminiscent of Richard Foreman. The technologies and the screens containing archived and live images might immediately be associated with the Wooster Group, and the direct delivery of non-linear text makes it hard not to think of Sarah Kane. As long as one is borrowing techniques (as any artist generally does), this is a rather prestigious group to borrow from. But the piece feels a little too borrowed and creates some of the feeling of walking around in someone else’s shoes.
The stylization of this piece wears a bit thin, and the second half of the piece feels like it drags. Ghost Box is built to have an inherent self-awareness and distance. The motive of the piece seems to be, at least partially, to keep the audience at arm’s length, aware of where they are, never fully able to engage or lose themselves in the onstage world. In doing this however, the creators somewhat stunt the energy and momentum of the piece, which never have a chance to build.
The text hints at an over-arching relationship within the piece, but narrowly misses making that work. The script is full of proclamations, self-references to the play, to the actors, to a number of “plot” points. But it proves slightly difficult to fully create a functional, non-linear text that doesn’t just seem eclectic. There is no clear narrative. The techniques used in the text at best serve to create a kind of mood. There a number of one-line, non-sequiturs, some of which later recur, and which help to provide more insight to this mood. Two of the most memorable are, “I forget who I am on most mornings,” and “Does life seem somehow intolerable to you?”—the latter a quote the company chose to put on their postcards. The highly effective set provokes a deep sense of alienation, disorientation, and estrangement—all of which creates a kind of theme, but not much of a story. The non-linear tack is truly suited to the piece, but makes it difficult to string many of the elements together, even symbolically.
The script and the play are at their strongest when the piece deals not in estranged sentence structures but with a highly specific story revolving around a character named Victor. The details are purposefully vague, but there are hints at some seedy undercover dealings, involving subterfuge and a possible murder. Here the group is able to achieve both a haunting clarity and an unexpected humor.
Like much of the piece, the performances feel a little too forced. The deadpan, one-level style is surprisingly hard to master. It definitely feels like the right direction for these box-structure pieces, but it doesn’t always come out right. It seems like the women try too hard to master a Godard-like vacancy and sensuality, while the men seem to be reaching for a muted danger. Sometimes the techniques work incredibly well but mostly they ring a bit false.
This group is not far from creating an exciting and signature style, but they are still just shy of doing so. The box is a near flawless creation. It is the most moving and effective part of the work. For what is fundamentally a static structure, changes to it are made beautifully by small, but significant, additions of lights and props. The colored fluorescent lights within the box make huge changes to the onstage world and the sound design is almost equally sophisticated, which augurs well for this company’s future. As soon as the performances and the text mature to match the high conceptual level of these boxes, this group could very well begin producing staggering original work. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to see them leaning towards it.