Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fear and Synchronicity in Las Vegas

Last night I saw a performance in a studio in Brooklyn by a group which has a focused and energetic conceptual daring that I like. Having tackled pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, the chosen turf for their new show was Las Vegas, cast as the ultimate expression of the rootlessness of American capitalism. In the post-performance discussion, one of the actors explained by telling a story of two architects walking past that fake copy of the sphinx. One scoffed, "This is all such a joke." The other replied, "Finally you're starting to get it."

One of the actresses made a particularly strong impression. Her performance had a natural yet off-kilter quality which grounded the drama while giving her the freedom to spin seamlessly through the flash-cut leaps of the stage action - ingenue bartender to frenetic abstract dancer to synchronized crowd ranter to victim of fantasy murder by bowling ball to passenger in a car plowing into a horse on a desert highway (oh all right maybe that last one was asking too much, but she positively flew through the first four).

Not only that, but when the rest of the cast sat down to make enthusiastic way for a trite and condescending attempt by a real life Wall Street banker to peddle the virtues of American capitalism, she crept off unsmiling - out of character, but still in view - to the darkest corner she could find. While the crowd seemed elated by the banker's cavalier antics, I was quietly appalled. There, curled up alone in a dark corner, as far from her beaming colleagues as she could be, my actress seemed to share my silent suffering. Who is this guy, and what is he doing in our theatre? How is he going to try and manipulate us for his own profit this time? Why doesn't anyone else see the horror? Our souls squirmed in unison.

Onstage, I found one of her scenes particularly affecting. The ingenue bartender gets caught in a stalled elevator with a prostitute going up to play mommy to some rich john. Status is suddenly reversed as the whore frets over being late, and the bartender opens her heart and tells her glowingly that everything is as it should be, that the two of them had been brought together for a reason. As if the universe had stopped the wheel of time in that dark elevator so that they might truly discover their shared humanity, and face their destiny together.

The scene ended with a dot dot dot, which is perhaps the only way it could end. If the theme was capitalism, this encounter could easily have been played as a collision of two American ways of life spawned by capitalism - the glittering high class prostitute who will sell her body at a premium, and the young evangelist who, buoyed by the pampered lifestyle and economic stability of her suburban subculture, goes to the city to bear witness and save souls. But while the actress playing the prostitute seemed content with this line of pursuit, my actress refused to leave things at that. Her bartender wasn't a born again Christian, or a new age Buddhist, or a girl whose imagination had been set on fire by a long-awaited brush with a newfound sister in the thick of the oldest profession. She was all and none of these. At any moment, she seemed to be telling us, you can embrace a reality beyond the understanding of the little people who tell us that money is what makes the world go round. If you really pay attention, you can find kinship with the humblest of souls. Perhaps only with the humblest of souls.

Thank you, my actress.