Since he took over as artistic director of the Public Theater in 2005, Oskar Eustis has distinguished himself from his predecessor, George C. Wolfe, in a few different ways, including his commitment to making adventurous downtown theater companies welcome at the house that Joe Papp built. Most notably, he’s brought high-powered attention to the Wooster Group (“Hamlet”), Elevator Repair Service (“Gatz”), and Le Freres Corbusier (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”). The latest in line is Gob Squad, a British/German company who made a big splash in last year’s Under the Radar Festival with “Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good),” which is now playing a short return engagement at the Public.
Gob Squad has been exploring the interface of theater with film and digital media in recent years, and this production is an ingenious experiment in that direction, framed as an homage to that mastermind of 20th century Pop art, Andy Warhol. Before audience members take their seats in the Public’s Newman Theater auditorium, they are routed up onto the stage to inspect three playing areas (a bed, a kitchen, and a sofa for lounging) arranged as film sets behind a proscenium-wide screen. Once the performance begins, we are mostly watching on the larger-than-life movie screen whatever the actors are doing “backstage,” which is recreating a series of legendary films that Warhol made in the ‘60s at his tin-foil-lined studio-headquarters known as The Factory.
The show proper opens with a stunningly fatuous, aggressively simple-minded introduction to Warhol and his world, willfully misrepresenting it as a compendium of shallow bromides about The Sixties, hipsters, and cool cats. Three single-camera films simultaneously inhabit the movie screen (a reference, perhaps, to “Chelsea Girls”). At center, Sean (Sean Patten) and Nina (Nina Tecklenburg) set about to reproduce “Kitchen,” the 1965 film that playwright Ronald Tavel scripted to showcase Edie Sedgwick, the young beauty Warhol had become fixated on, and a handful of other Factory denizens. To the right, Simon (Simon Will) sits simply facing the camera, replicating the type of moving-picture portrait Warhol labeled “Screen Test.” To the left, Sarah (Sarah Thom) lolls in bed, referencing the film “Sleep,” five hours of Warhol’s then-boyfriend John Giorno doing nothing but…you guessed it.
These actors are trying awfully hard to capture the spirit of Warhol’s inquiry into cinematic minimalism, life as performance, and adding the dimension of time to visual artwork, but they’re not doing it very well. Simon swaps with Nina, who immediately violates the ethos of doing nothing for the camera and starts channeling Lady Gaga. So he comes out from behind the screen and wades into the audience until he finds a volunteer to take Nina’s place on the “Screen Test” sofa. Then Sarah gets bored and talks Sean into taking her place, but his extreme self-consciousness about Getting It Right gets in the way. So she fetches from the audience another young man to simulate “Sleep” for the camera. You see where this is going? One by one, each of the Gob Squad actors replaces him- or herself with a stranger from the audience. (For a bit of improvisatory stretch, a very game and rather charismatic young woman steps in for Sean, which includes taking part in a mocking tribute to another famous Warhol film “Blow Job.”) Each of these recruits gets a headset through which they’re presumably fed lines and stage directions for the rest of the show, with the exception of the “Sleep” arena, where Sarah returns to chat up the volunteer and eventually coaxes him into joining her in re-enacting one of Warhol’s many “Kiss” films with a shy three-minute smooch.
The show gets more riveting and the stakes get higher with each new cast member, which might seem to be saying something about the connection between Warhol’s film aesthetic and “reality TV,” our voyeuristic hunger for that elusive sense that something real and unplanned is unspooling before our eyes. Gob Squad slyly creates an environment of layered artifice, the better to frame by contrast the beauty and simplicity and mystery of watching something genuinely unrehearsed.
Watching the show was entertaining, and thinking about it afterwards was even more engrossing. It reminded of my favorite story from Charlie Hauck’s book “Artistic Differences”:
Wilfred Lawson, an English character actor with an enthusiasm for strong drink, sat in a West End pub one evening and overheard two young American actors speaking passionately about their craft. Lawson, his speech a little imprecise, approached them and asked them if they'd like to see, at that very moment, some acting that would surprise, and perhaps even jolt, them ... acting of a sort that they had never seen before. The younger actors agreed, and Lawson led them across the street to the alley entrance of a theater, and up the stairs to the balcony. There they watched a few minutes of a play in progress. The acting was fine. But suddenly, the mood on the stage changed. The actors varied their rhythms in unusual ways, and held their bodies in arresting poses. There was an air of tension and expectation on the stage and in the audience. One of the American actors leaned over to Lawson and said, "This is amazing." After a few more moments of observing, he leaned over again and asked, "What are they doing?" Lawson said, "They're waiting for my entrance."
CultureVulture.net, February 1, 2012