nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 9, 2013
A scene from Barcode
The new musical Barcode opened this year’s FringeNYC festival; its intentions are admirable but its creators have not quite brought their ideas to satisfying life. The show is set in a dystopian “not-so-distant future” (according to the program), where a monolithic corporation rules the world, or at least a good deal of it—distant places on its periphery are declared “uncivilized” and subjects of apparently frequent wars of conquest. The corporation’s citizens all have barcodes embedded on their wrists, which are scanned by various public officials to ascertain that their bearers are complying with directives (such as carrying a certain level of debt; shopping is a very important value in this world).
The heroes of Barcode are a band of “datajammers” who do things like distribute anti-government zines and hack into the barcode software to disrupt the government’s control. A new member of this group, Dorna, becomes involved with a young man named Nestor, whose mother is chief anchor of the official news network and a confidante of Mr. ICE, the head of the ruling corporation. Nestor’s father hasn’t been seen in decades, presumably having defected to the lands outside. Will Nestor find his father? Will he and Dorna and their friends defeat Mr. ICE?
The story is told in dialog (some of which is beat poetry; several scenes transpire at a possibly underground establishment called Poe Tree Café) and songs, all written by Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill. The style of the piece is surprisingly old-fashioned. The songs have a ‘70s soft rock feel, mostly—the melodies are pretty, though, and the harmonies, presumably arranged by Andrews and Blaxill and often sung by the 16-member cast, are lovely. But the lyrics rely too often on mere repetition of the song title or images that don’t parse clearly (there is, for example, a song where people say they feel like a “Dog on a Skylight”; how exactly does that feel?).
Though the themes of the show are earnest and important, they also feel naïve; many of the science-fictiony horrors imagined here either feel far-fetched or just trite as they already exist. I was particularly surprised by the extreme low-tech design, which mostly consists of what look like contemporary street clothes and some movable panels that define space on the stage in various configurations. This is a show that would benefit immensely from projections or other multimedia elements, but none are present in this production, which is directed and choreographed by Joe Barros with a routine sameness that sometimes became plodding.
There’s talent behind Barcode, and on stage as well-notably, Wes Haskell as Nestor and Jeff Tuohy as Jobes, one of the datajammers. But Barcode would benefit from significant rethinking and revision before I’d be ready to enthusiastically recommend it.