There’s a lot of playfully provocative interrogation on the REDCAT stage in the U.S. premiere of Western Society, the sardonic and whip-clever video “reenactment” by the Anglo-German “intermedia” performance troupe Gob Squad, and not the least of it is in the evening’s repeatedly intoned, metatheatrical mantra, “What are we doing here?”
Well might they ask. Because in typical Gob Squad fashion, the blurred interstices between the “what,” the “we,” the “doing” and even the “here” of the squad’s video/theater performance hybrid gets charged with a wryly interrogative urgency that recovers what's lost behind the frame of filmed representation.
In Super Night Shot, the logistically dazzling instant feature film performance that closed a four-night stand on Sunday, the “here” turned out to be blocks away from REDCAT, where the four-actor, four-camera, mock-heroic movie about a movie was shot immediately prior to its screening in the REDCAT theater. The “doing” was the meticulously choreographed filming of the “story” — the location scouting, publicity campaign, conscripting of supporting players (random passersby) and the acting (by Gob stars Berit Stumpf, Mat Hand, Sean Patten and Johanna Freiburg).
The “what” of the event became the transcendent proximities of time, production, actors, street people and audience that, in the context of the live stage, transformed the familiar into something mythic and estranged and uncannily monumental.
In that sense, Western Society is almost Super Night Shot writ small and in reverse. Taking the stage like a ‘70s Swedish glam rock act, in flowing blonde wigs and slinky gold costumes (by designers Emma Cattell and Kerstin Honeit), Patten, Stumpf, Sarah Thom and Bastian Trost quickly assemble a seedy living room set in front of a large projection screen on which a title sequence fast-forwards through a million years to the present moment.
The central interrogation here is of a three-minute YouTube video — found footage taken of a drab family karaoke party in a living room near Santa Barbara that Patten grandly proclaims to be a portrait of Western Society itself.
Expanding on what little information was posted with the video, the troupe inventories and names the seven family members depicted in the clip (“Girl with Phone,” “Granny,” “Cake Lady,” “Remote Control Man,” “Boy in White Hat,” etc.) along with the limited gestures and actions that together constitute the “script” for the live reconstruction that is projected onto a second screen placed between the performers and audience.
The payoff comes in the climactic series of reenacted variations — simultaneously visible both onscreen and in-person immediately upstage — that create a sort of uncanny parallax as the live spectacle competes with its flattened and mediated representation. Its effect is hard to describe other than to say it creates a kind of ontological moiré that is at once thrilling and strange to experience.
It becomes more surreal when the actors step outside the video frame and enlist seven game audience members to take on their roles. As the scene is repeatedly rerun (the audience-performers taking direction over headphones), Patten, Stumpf, Thom and Trost take turns rejoining the audience-reenactors, but this time playing themselves and performing lengthy autobiographical reminiscences triggered by the video. The out-of-character intrusions by the squad effectively hijacks the reenactment by literally crowding out the “characters” of the original You Tube clip until only Thom and an audience member (co-opted as her "father") remain in the frame.
Tellingly, it is in this last movement where Western Society begins to wear thin; the reenactments begin to strain with over-familiarity and repetition, forcing the scripted monologues and their informal, almost ad libbed language to carry more and more of the evening’s weight. As the poetic demands of drama reassert themselves, the stage energy slackens and tedium creeps in. But in God Squad’s hands, even that kind of traditional-stage failure is somehow made fascinatingly revealing and eminently forgivable.
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Gob Squad at REDCAT, 631 W 2nd St., dwntwn.; through Saturday, Sept. 20. 213-237-2800, redcat.org.
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