Tim Smith-Stewart and Jeffrey Azevedo’s Awaiting Oblivion: Temporary Solutions for Surviving the Dystopian Future We Find Ourselves Within at Present, which runs Thursday-Sunday at On the Boards, shouldn’t be as good as it is.
If you were even able to read the title in its entirety without getting bored and checking your phone, then you know the show sounds exactly as self-interested and unsympathetically tragic as that one friend everybody in Seattle has, the one who's just a little too smart for his own (or anyone else’s) good, who confuses academic language with profundity, and who probably wouldn’t have to take so many anxiety meds if he could just own up to his martyr complex and stop thinking he can solve humanity’s ancient injustices simply by talking about them all the time.
Based on the rehearsal I saw last Thursday, your flash judgment isn't 100 percent wrong. But even if Awaiting Oblivion is just as pointy-headed and bleeding-heart as its title suggests, it’s also really fucking good. Smart, funny, self-deprecating, literary, very much about 2017 Seattle, and very woke about its wokeness. Smith-Stewart and Azevedo offset their script’s manic-academic power analyses with moments of pure lyrical beauty and delightfully unbridled absurdity, creating a performance that feels fresh. Even better: It moves forward the conversation between progressive politics and art that Seattle keeps trying to have.
Formally, the show is an epistolary drama. An offstage character named A.O. (cheeky reference to the title? you bet) sends letters and pre-recorded tapes (aka "flux kits") to the show’s creators. These missives contain instructions for a performance that is, as the title suggests, composed of several temporary solutions for surviving the dystopian future we find ourselves in at present.
A.O. hopes their instructions will operate as an artistic blueprint for resisting oppressive systems (Capitalism, the police state, the Trump administration etc.) and stave off suicidal depression, but he also constantly questions their utility and effectiveness. Azevedo, Smith-Stewert, Skylar Tatro, and Aliza Delpan-Monley variously act as A.O.’s mouthpiece, reading the letters and acting out their solutions.
The first and most fascinating of A.O.'s “solutions” breaks down the limited revolutionary potential of the “non-profit arts industrial complex” in general and of On the Boards (and, of course, the show itself) in particular.
Highlighting the corporate networks Smith-Stewart and Azevedo have relied on for financial support (Coca-Cola, Boeing, and many others), the show lays out a pretty convincing argument that it “is unable to truly promote revolution due to its dependence on capitalist power structures a.k.a corporate donors.”
Already turned off (or too-righteously turned on) by the language? Alice Gosti’s choreography steps in to both challenge or support your reading, depending on your political disposition. As A.O. via Tatro rambles on about the “non-profit arts industrial complex,” Tatro and other members of the cast perform an increasingly intense cheerleading routine. Their movements speed up so much that they have trouble saying their lines without huffing and puffing.
On one hand, this move supports A.O.’s argument, in that it shows how jumping through the hoops of contemporary art-making—securing grants, partnering with arts orgs, etc.—can undermine the very art those artists are trying make, sort of like the choreographic equivalent of the phrase (often used ironically these days) “the struggle is real.”
On the other hand, the effort to foreground the real physical toll artistic participation takes on the body reminds us that the struggle really is real, and that even if a given project is mired in impure conflicts of interest, there’s still a bunch of human beings in a room exchanging ideas in meaningful ways that only art can facilitate.
***I mean, should the fact that Rockstar Energy Drink is sponsoring a Dashboard Confessional tour make me think any less fondly about that time she stood at her door with her hands on my waist and kissed me like she meant it—and I knew she meant it? Well, it might, because now there’s a crushed can of Rockstar in the bushes of that memory and I can’t unsee it.***
The digressive drama of self-criticism is one of the many tensions driving the performance. Others include the question of whether A.O. or someone else will commit fictional suicide, the active conversation between text and movement embedded in Gosti’s genius choreography, the script’s spine of au courant Seattle topics (e.g. the queer exodus from Capitol Hill, gentrification in general, #NoNewYouthJail, etc.), and the audience member's constant anxiety that the show will collapse under the weight of its own self-awareness. It doesn’t make sense that you can’t look away, but you can’t look away.
Performance-wise, look for Tatro and Delpan-Monley to shine. At the rehearsal, both appeared to have fully embodied Gosti’s choreography. Tatro’s sensibilities in particular seem suited to this and other sort-of-avant-garde work: she’s got both a great deadpan and a plausible sincerity.
By way of disclaimer/reminder: I saw a stripped-down rehearsal (no music, maybe only half the visuals) a week before opening, so in a way, there's no telling what the finished product will look like. I had some reservations—length (it's maybe 15 minutes too long); tone (self-awareness without the saving grace of self-deprecation plays as self-obsession); dismount (the ending is questionable). BUT those points may well be moot come Thursday—especially if you're using the primary definition of the word, which is "debatable."
In other words: Go see it. Especially if you're an artist in Seattle. Or even if you only think you are.