Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
January 18, 2008
As I looked for the entrance to St. Mark's Church for Ontological-Hysteric Theatre's production of Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland, I ran into a couple. After figuring out where we were and where we needed to go, one of them, a woman, asked me if I'd ever seen a Richard Foreman show. I told her I'd seen one (Zomboid) and she replied she'd seen a lot of them and that the experience was an amazing one. Her greatest impression, the strongest she chose to share, was not to expect a lot of subtext. She imagined this would be difficult if I were used to more conventional theatre—and if I were an actor—but she said the focus of a Richard Foreman show sprang from somewhere else. "It's the performance," she said. "It's all about the performance."
In a way, the woman was right. The characters in Deep Trance in Potatoland are not motored by conventional intentions. There are characters with descriptive rather than specific names: One, Man in Striped Suit, wears a red cape and his smile reveals a rather nice set of pointy fangs. Another, Girl with Black Hair (I think), wears a short black dress with stockings and garters; she bows to a dual set of screens on the back wall of the stage, onto which are projected a series of videos.
There are five actors in all, four women and one man. They don't seek anything from one another. They don't plot, plan, reflect, or emote. They seem to function as set pieces, extensions of the tilted pianos and angled platforms that make up the set. They speak in heightened, almost poetic text. They move like dancers at one moment, like formalized Shakespearean-trained actors at another, and like music video background players as well. And as the actors played, and the play's action laid itself out, I did not detect one ounce of subtext.
Subtext though, depends on a number of theatrical elements, an important one being plot. In this regard, subtext isn't possible because Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland doesn't have one. Rather than asking the audience to follow a story, it asks audience members to participate, to "jump from world to world… [from] filmed world to live stage world." We are also asked to "jump to new ways of relating to reality, a reality in which ideas and behaviors, when viewed correctly, are also askew." To this end, the theatre is transformed into a spacious, turn-of-the-century New York apartment that is slightly off balance. Everything—the windows, the furniture, the video screens, the walls, the bowls sitting on the pianos, the recesses within the walls—is tilted, off-kilter. The space suggests Edith Wharton with a touch of Count Dracula.
Because there is no plot, the show is reduced to a series of interactions between the actors and the space, the actors and the video projections, the video projections and the soundscape, and the actors and the soundscape. The soundscape is of interest because it gives voice to these interactions and provides an avenue into the seemingly arbitrary events.
But there are events. The actors interact with the video clips, which were filmed in Japan and England. Because culture plays a large role in the style and content of the videos, mini-events take place where the actors encounter them. The cultural shifting that results from these encounters adds to demands placed on the audience, creating a differing cultural perspective on a show already loaded with them.
When events happen in Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland, they illuminate the material and provide distant glimpses of humanity. In one such event, the actors, strewn about the stage in various interactions with the set pieces, react to a loud series of gunshots by scrambling to different areas of the stage. They hide behind oil paintings and dive halfway into an a large white urn and launch into a series of nonsensical movements that mirror choreography they've used earlier in the play. The moment resonates because it shows the futility people will resort to in the face of chaos.
In another event, the Man in the Striped White Suit causes a woman's demise, an act of power that leads him to sing a rather wicked version of "Me and My Shadow." Suddenly, loud melodramatic music sounds—heavy on cello strings—and The Man wails in anguish. Though it was difficult to tell, this represented one of the few clear-cut cases of behavioral effect cause-and-effect in the show.
None of this however brings me much closer to what this show is about and it is there I am drawing a blank. The closest parallel I can find is a high-powered, multi-layered performance piece but even that doesn't do it a modicum of justice. In a letter handed out before the show, Foreman admits he "increasingly finds the theater a less and less appropriate arena in which to develop the laboratory-like work that obsesses me, luring me deeper and deeper into the particular truths I feel driven to explore." My initial reaction to this declaration was anger. If he feels that it is inappropriate, why use it?
But what good is theatre, what good is art, if it can't be used to explore? It seems to me that Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland is about his deep, unseen reactions to the phenomenon known as multiculturalism. What's interesting about the piece is that it ignores the causes but plays the effects of Foreman's company's collective experiences against each other and throws them onto the stage as if it were a canvas. It takes apart the words and actions of a number of complicated experiences and delves into unspoken impulses and realities behind them. Looking back on the show, I honestly wish I could have seen three successive performances to see what ideas settled in.