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A Fake Ted Talk that Almost Makes Sense, Then Doesn't

ABACUS at Sundance

Calvin KnightABACUS at Sundance

It's hard to image something revolutionary arriving in a familiar package. The insidious things -- like fascism in the form of boys in knee socks with bowl cuts, or the Joker inside of a cake -- are the ones that pop out of predictable shapes and sizes.

That's part of what ABACUS, Lars Jan's one-man show in the form of an inspirational lecture, is toying with: Can you turn something that feels like a Ted Talk into something that blows your mind, not in a feel-good, world-just-got-cooler way, but in an I-really-have-no-idea-what-that-was kind of way?

ABACUS, developed two years ago, was performed at RedCat in downtown L.A., then at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, and now ran this past week as part of Live Arts Exchange, a two-week run of shows that straddle dance, opera and performance art (it runs through Sunday). The young organization Los Angeles Performance Practice co-produced the series with the Bootleg Theater on Beverly Boulevard, and the Bootleg hosted the events.

ABACUS stars Paul Abacus, who plays himself, purportedly -- the program describes him as the "St. Teresa of the screen age. Perforated by pixels," and explains that he was "booted from Oxford." It doesn't say why Oxford wanted him out, but the implication is he that he was maybe a too forward-thinking for that storied institution. There has apparently been some confusion during the shows previous runs, maybe because an airline magazine ran a blurb a year ago that made Paul Abacus sound very real and iconic or maybe because Jan staged a press conference and enlisted performance artists to act like paparazzi at Sundance.

In its current form at the Bootleg, the show begins with lights dim and some glow coming from the fuzzy image on the big screen. Paul Abacus emerges with black lines painted under his eyes football-player style, and starts to massage the audience: "Have you ever had a lightbulb moment? Can I see a show of hands?" He nods and smiles when hands go up. "I've had a few," he says. "I wonder when the next one's going to hit. Do you?" He throws in allusions to Babe Ruth calling a home run, and a kid wanting to know if there are more colors than the ones he sees in a double rainbow.

It takes about ten minutes of build-up until we're into his main argument, that national borders are an archaic idea. They should be dissolved. By this point, landforms are glowing, floating and then splitting into geometric shapes on the screen behind him and two barefooted men with Steadicams have joined him on the stage. For the rest of the performance, we'll see them dance around Abacus, footage from their cameras, of him or of the audience or venue, often feeding onto the screen, when live-generated data visualizations aren't illustrating Abacus' points.

Paul Abacus performs ABACUS

Courtesy Los Angeles Performance PracticePaul Abacus performs ABACUS

Near the end, after he's been fairly convincing about the absurdity of borders, he tells us we're on the roller coast to the dark age, and invites us all to put up our hands and scream. He does so, facing away from us, but the cameraman capturing his yelling face, so that we can see it projected, washed in color. At some point in there, he yells that line that's in all the trailers for the show, "This is not a 99 cent store, this carton of milk, you do not get this opportunity every day. Get on the roller coaster and scream if you feel it!" This doesn't make sense. But you might not realize it right away, because Abacus is still arguing in his sexy Ted-talker voice. And the screens, movements and effects have taken over, and he's become the hum tying all these hi-tech, live streaming elements together.

For more events in Live Arts Exchange, which runs through Sunday, see liveartsexchange.org.


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