When Kenneth Collins and William Cusick of Temporary Distortion started building Newyorkland, they thought they were working on a deconstruction of police movies—Dirty Harry, all that stuff. "Instead," one of them said over the phone last week, "we wound up deconstructing the public perception of an entire profession."
Temporary Distortion, from NYC, presents its video-heavy work in and around big screens, using projection, flashlights, and bulbs on the set as the lighting. No use of the overhead grid. The company also builds its work in a fully integrated way—text, lighting, music, acting, film, and set all get slowly built simultaneously, usually with most people in the room for most rehearsals. It's not a playwright-over-here and director-over-there and designers-over-there proposition. It's all one.
Which may be why Newyorkland, playing this weekend at On the Boards, feels so seamless and gorgeous. The piece gets at the boredom behind police work (answering phones, writing reports on typewriters with microphones and heavy reverb for every keystroke) and its traumas (re-staged interviews with cops about the first time they shot somebody or were shot at on the job).
Collins and Cusick know their stuff—one came from a cop family (dad and lots of other relatives were/are cops) and the other worked on Law & Order.
Plus, they did a ton of primary research, with interviews and reading over old police reports. The result is a dreamy, poetic, abstracted, and sometimes scary meditation on what it's like to live behind a badge—reviled by the people you thought you were protecting, professionally obligated to contemplate horrible things, tempted into excess, straining personal relationships, straining your relationship with yourself. (In some ways, I selfishly thought while watching, the stories they told about the raw emotional edges of cop-work are not so different from the raw emotional edges of journalism-work.)
Collins and Cusick—as well as the folks at On the Boards—expressed some anxiety about presenting this U.S. premiere now, what with the international scrutiny on how police officers are treating Occupy protesters. But I say that our Occupy moment is the perfect time for this show. Lane Czaplinski of On the Boards said the theater was offering a two-for-one deal for police officers. I suggested they hold a special showing just for cops and protesters, everyone in civilian clothing, to think about what it means to live on the law-enforcement side of the barricades.
Despite the anxieties, the show got a warm welcome—last night, the audience applauded for so long, the cast made three curtain calls. You can get tickets here.