What happens to “the sublime” of European Romanticism after the death of the author and the birth of tumblr? Can you “share” it? Can you “like” it?
And can you stage it?
“I would love if someone saw the show and said, ‘I’m going to do that.’ Because it would be impossible,” said co-director/co-choreographer/co-producer Theresa Buchheister during load-in of Buran Theatre’s Nightmares at The Brick in Williamsburg last week. The playful and rigorous Brooklyn company, led by Adam R. Burnett and Jud Knudsen along with a satellite system of collaborators, will be wrestling with the sublime, the incubus, and other thinly veiled 90s rock references through Saturday, January 12th.
The incubus, famously depicted in Henry R. Fuseli’s ur-meme The Nightmare, is read as the personification of social media: (re)appropriating, sharing, and curating. These particular manifestations of drive (gloss: plagiarism) provoke the dream-like proceedings which bloom under the gaze of the eponymous painting projected as a kind of aleatory gif. Geraldo Mercado’s media design haunts the binary code of Romantic era tif. images, teasing our attention while posturing as slideshow, personal art collection, and finally, deep space.
These images play on an actual 4th wall by Nick Kostner (!) a wooden curtain that spectacularly unfolds to reveal a raked AstroTurf stage. Here are the “shores of Lake Geneva” where famous teenagers Mary Shelley (Arla Berman), Percy Bysshe (Brady Blevins), Lord Byron (Curry Whitmire), John Polidori (Marlowe Holden), and Claire Claremont (Catrin Lloyd-Bollard) conceived the literary Gothic. Their retreat is reenacted as beer-soaked musical theater complete with onanistic mime work from the outward-turning cast who foment themselves as they each shower us with a frothy verse.
Polidori, who was Lord Byron’s personal physician, wrote a vampyre story that Byron apparently took credit for only to later insist in vain upon his “wrongful appropriation.” This classed power relation is picked up in regards to a jargon filled and uncited blog post (sounds familiar) that blows up (does not sound familiar). Eventually, everyone is clad in underwear and turtlenecks (that signifier of pretension and illness), otherwise, the casting and costuming (tasks left uncredited in the program) seemed to evince some heteromasculine fantasy with the eroticization of bodies skewing heavily to the corseted or naked female performers. The patriarchal relation, with its history of gender-based plagiarism, subtends Fuseli’s ouevre: we view his 3 Witches and this depiction of white male violence against women. The work doesn’t quiet coalesce into a tangible theorization or critique of gender (or heteronormativity or whiteness/Eurocentrism, for that matter, which also float about in the onstage unconscious and obviously animated enlightenment philosophy). Though neither, it seems, does this blog post.
Stepping back, the work unfolds as a kind of melancholic and manic art history lecture lead by co-director Knudsen who greets us as a whimsical, self-doubting, aggro Fool luxuriating in exuberant Thom Pain-ish-ness and serving the audience whiskey. “I would like to get myself into a temper” he says after lamenting the absence of experiences like this, immediately accosting a spectator about their twitter habits and demanding conversation. Buran likens the sublime to something “overwhelming” and through processes of emotive intensification, the actors seem to approach this extreme register of being. “I’m bored,” he starts moaning, as others later will, gradually elongating the syllables to seem to say “I’m Bourdieu.” This destabilizing practice, teasing out entendre and auto-correcting the dramatic actor, continues making words uncertain and monstrous throughout (J.M.W. Trucker? Shea lounge? Brosciutto?).
We are soon thrown off (or on) course by a series of absurd vignettes ranging from interviews with Ray Kurzweil; to dreams, indigestion and interior decorating with Fuseli; to falling in love in comments sections; to a lonely-hearts monster mash soft-shoe. Every time we are introduced to a place or character it seems to change or disappear and, like peek-a-boo, reappear. Or. Not. When it looks to be a duet between Knudsen and Burnett it is suddenly overrun with Marx brothers. The cascade of lazzis eludes whatever narrative impulses we still have, leaving us in a dream-like free fall.
To ambush the sublime where it lay in the Romantic imagination, the actors plumb for shared experiences of travel. “Have you been to Reno?” the ludic and dangerous Arla Berman asks, putting pressure on memories of place to maybe exceed the containable, sharable, or understandable. Curry Whitmire’s reply is like an embodied Google result with “Reno” as a search term. For the cast, a copypasta poetics of the outside often renders being onstage like scrolling through associative streams of cultural quotations.
At other times, performers reveal a host of obsessives manifesting symptoms of Web2.0 culture. Through stuffy nose and sleeping bag, a flashlit Catrin Lloyd-Bollard hilariously recalls her misery going outdoors in her youth. As a third act surprise, Lara Thomas Ducey swoons breathily over a smartphone, her “only intimate,” in a relatable gush of dependency. In another stunning late cameo, Mercado bounds onstage to deliver several silent haughty stares as an accessorized quadruped deity type.
Burnett described the play as an “exponential climb” that welcomes the unplanned and unpredictable, the centrality of the actor, and the immediacy of the body. Other company members I met with during tech spoke of it as a vessel for connection and transformation. Warmth, humor, respect, generosity, lack of preciousness, attunement to audience, and process surfaced as primary goals. The work tours to Topeka and Albuquerque later this year where it will take on new collaborators and design elements as part of Buran’s interest in adaptability, sensitivity, and change.
“Nightmares” continues at The Brick tonight Tuesday January 8th and runs through Saturday January 12th at 8pm.