nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 21, 2007
The impetus for Subjective Theatre Company's new performance work, Party Discipline, is terrifically admirable: in a time when so much seems to be going wrong in our country and world, can art also be activist, fostering political awareness and engagement in its audience? Subjective's impulse is both rare and thrilling; furthermore, the effort they've undertaken in creating this singular piece is substantial and impressive. Even though Party Discipline doesn't accomplish everything it sets out to do, it's worth taking in as an exemplar of what experimental, socially conscious indie theatre can be.
The conceit of the show is that we're at a seminar where we will learn how to harness our personal visions in the service of some greater good. The seminar setting is meticulously realized: the audience sits around a long conference table, with name tags prominently displayed; there's a several-page handout instead of a program, a video monitor, and several facilitators to guide us through the event. The first of these is "Reverend" Andy Waldschmidt, who establishes the touchy-feely/red-state idiom of the thing with a convincingly caring, gentle manner and lots of references to God and religion.
One by one, we meet the other speakers, portrayed with uncanny verisimilitude by Subjective Company members (who use their own names for the characters they're playing): Zack Griffiths, who began questioning his anti-Iraq War stance after a close friend enlisted; Darius Stone, who wants us to consider the benefits of pro-business legislation for the community; Jesse Alick, a gay man who has turned his lonely life around now that he's decided to shun his homosexuality; and Elisa Malona, a pro-lifer who eventually tries to convince us that Planned Parenthood is the product of a conspiracy of rich white people.
The seminar also includes several surveys, conducted by Tamar Schoenberg, one of which leads to a sort of breakout activity in which audience members participate. There are also skits and songs mixed in among the mini-lectures/testimonials; sometimes these veer too far into performance art territory to feel organic in the seminar setting, though these vignettes often work well on their own in dramatic terms. In particular, a piece in which Griffiths and Roger Yeh as his friend Chazz trade messages in an Internet chat room is staged vividly and compellingly.
The upshot of the information shared with us in Party Discipline is that the "other side"—i.e., the groups that this show's target audience probably don't identify with, such as Republicans, Christian fundamentalists, and the people who run Target and Wal-Mart—have valid points; more important (if more subtly), their tactics are valuable and ought to be appropriated by the struggling activist/artist who wants to have his/her voice heard and wants to make a living while raising said voice. There's a great deal of food for thought here, though some of the positions (Alick's anti-gay stance, for example) feel more obviously like actors' poses than others.
This leads me to the main weakness of the experience, which is that the essential tension between performance piece (where the audience member functions principally as a spectator, and wants to be entertained as well as engaged) and seminar (where the audience member expects to be a more active participant, and also expects to learn something beneficial) is never resolved here. The controversial ideas are presented but not really discussed; some of the more over-the-top concepts, such as the Planned Parenthood conspiracy I mentioned earlier, carry high entertainment value, but at a cost to their persuasiveness. In the end, I wondered if a seminar format could really successfully be utilized for a theatrical event: the paradigms of each seem to be fundamentally at odds with each other.
But kudos, nevertheless, to Subjective's ensemble for pulling this off as well as they do! Party Discipline delivers as both performance art and political consciousness-raising session; Malona's monologue about why she is against abortion is acting of the highest caliber, while Stone and Waldschmidt's homey salesmanship tactics spark all manner of challenging thinking about a variety of uncomfortable subjects. And that's all to the good—experiments like this one are necessary and worthy of encouragement. Whatever else they may or may not have convinced me of, the artists who created and performed this piece have made it clear that their concerns are authentic and their ambitions to do something about them are in earnest. What they may learn from the process that resulted in this show can only lead them to even more potent and valuable political art in the future.