New City Theater, 1632 Broadway in the First Christian Church, 328-4683. Thurs-Sat at 8; $12-$15. Through Dec 16.
YOU WALK INTO a room, maybe l5 by 20 feet. The walls are blue, and the ceiling, which slants upward to an opening that ought to be the sky, is blue. There's blue carpet on the floor, and the chairs, placed flush around the four walls of the room, are gray blue. You sit and you have to look up because above you, on the slanted ceiling, are four huge video screens, each with the same slowly swishing image of--a cloud? The Milky Way? A trail of smoke? A slide beneath a microscope? Snow? These images play over and over while you hear crickets churring around you. It seems peaceful, like a chapel, or a room full of Rothko paintings, or being outside in the South on a summer night. Like the Ann Hamilton room at the Henry Art Museum a few years back, or the Hair Chapel at the Henry's show of new Chinese art, this environment can put you off guard; this production, MacArthur Fellow John Jesurun's Snow, is as much installation art as theater.
Only after you're feeling all quiet and calm does the story begin. Into these peaceful images above you are spliced, like naughty subliminal ads, images of worker bees in an office looking at computer screens, doing some kind of surveillance: Those pretty screens you've been looking at have also been looking at you. Then you hear the voice of a not-very-good actress doing a generic 'foreign' accent. She's nattering some pretentious-sounding crap about smoke and cities and becoming what you are and perception and blah, blah, blah. You try to place her fake accent; then when you see her--a white woman in bad "Japanese" makeup, a grade-B Madame Butterfly--you're thinking, Jeez, a whole evening of this? At which point she rips off her wig, says she can't go on with this stupid role, and starts to remove her makeup. There's a camera in her makeup mirror so you see this woman's face very, very close up. She tugs and pulls at her skin. You feel oddly, uncomfortably intimate. You feel like a spy, and of course you are.
This is Cricket, a mediocre actress with a long career playing mediocre parts on television. Like the zillions of insects that provided the background sound in the blue chapel, this single human Cricket provides a different kind of white noise--the noise of TV snow--as the background of a strangely ominous, not-too-future world. Everything Cricket says, and the emotions she pretends to possess, have all been in the service of passing coded messages from someone--she never finds out who--to someone else, who remains just as mysterious.
Though uncomfortable with her work, Cricket would rather keep things as they are than risk change; this show is about being complicit. The night I attended, there were a few empty seats, so audience members spread out, then eventually lay on the floor to look up at the screens. It was oddly fitting that we were taking over what is traditionally the actor's place. The acting occurs in the hallways and rooms around this blue room; we cannot see the live performers, just the video relay (via 24 cameras) of what is going on a few feet behind or next to us, separated by a solid blue wall. After the show, the company invited us to view the eerie, Avengers-like bright pink and green and yellow hallways and rooms where the action that we saw on video took place.
Cricket is played with intelligence and verve by Valerie Charles, a New York-based performer who has worked with Jesurun for more that 15 years. There is one laugh-out-loud funny scene--sort of a Beckett does "Who's on first?" In the scene, Cricket and Kit (Mary Ewald) as "Conchita" and "the Czarina" have a catfight hissy fit about Rasputin ("I should never have let Rasputin in here with his rumba band!!"), Anna Karenina ("railroaded by her love of trains"), music, and sex.
Like a lot of installation work, this piece is more concept-driven than character-driven. The future world, Jesurun suggests, may be more about our usefulness to some big abstract system than about our lives as individuals with our own identities, stories, or hearts. Let's hope this artist-visionary isn't right.