Bushwick band and art collective Pass Kontrol's New Hope City, at the Bushwick Starr through February 27, is an Orwellian drama haunted by the zeitgeist of Empire Records with a passionate and calculated lambasting of all things corporate and media-related. It is an exercise in rebellion. Pass Kontrol's take on the sometimes hackneyed Big Brother, post apocalypse scenario is refreshing in its subtlety and control, as the collective's success comes from the multi-faceted DIY nature of the production. They eschew a more polished style to celebrate an underground aesthetic; the combination of video, theater, live music and dancing makes for a physically liberating experience, where the audience can literally get up and dance if they like.
Taken as straight dramatic theater, New Hope City is filled with the endearing care of passionate amateurs. That's not intended as a criticism, as it makes for a charming synthesis of different forms of media, creating new and organic experiences that stay far away from familiar avant-garde audience participation-type cheese. This is an exciting moment in way Off-Off Broadway culture, or something so different that it might not need to be defined in relation to Broadway at all.
As New Hope City opens, Pass Kontrol takes the stage behind their instruments and begin to play, the concert being powered by two rebels on electricity-generating stationary fixed gear bicycles. This foot power also brightens up a video screen in the background showing Lucas Renard (played by drummer O Ralli) escaping from masked Sentries by bicycle through the streets of Bushwick while trying to deliver illegal music to his buddy Finn (singer and guitarist A Brown). Though Lucas evades his would-be captors for the time being, the moment sets the tone for the show: everything we are seeing is illegal in this coward new world, from smoking mood-altering cigarettes and drinking mushroom tea to listening to music, and we are complicit in these acts of rebellion.
The audience becomes part of Pass Kontrol's quest to bring good music to the people through pirate radio despite the overbearing government of Daveshead, which rules over the New Hope City franchise metropolises and tries to censor them. The pedal-powered concert is microcosmic; New Hope City is fueled by the ingenuity of the participants and even the sheer muscle power of the collective. In light of the current movement in DIY low-fi recording, self-publishing, and fringe art that walks the line between legal and criminal in Bushwick, the metaphor grows organically into the future. Pass Kontrol proves that if you want anything done exactly the way that you’d like it done, you must do it yourself.
Lucas and Finn decide they must meet the half man half machine musician the Vissermatron 3000 (it also would be sweet if they could jam with him), and what follows is a picaresque journey that riffs on every 20-something guy's fantasy of picking up with his best buddy and hopping a freight train, getting drunk, doing some mushrooms and seeing his favorite bands perform. In the vein of the journey that Dorothy takes in Oz to see the Wizard (or maybe, less figuratively, the KISS fans in Detroit Rock City), Lucas and Finn go out in search of their own wizard who, though they do not know it, might help them find a way to go on living in the increasingly depressing city they've come to love and hate. Also like Dorothy, they meet all sorts of different characters along the way, who join them in their quest.
The analogies to Brooklyn and the struggling artists therein are well crafted and don't flounder in stereotype. The set is sparse but imaginative, with most things drawn and painted, and possibly culled from curbs all throughout Bushwick on trash day. The interaction between Finn and Lucas feels like it relies more on their actual friendship offstage than anything developed over rehearsal, which makes for a very enjoyable and compelling dynamic. Whatever this script lacks in professional polish it makes up for in these actors' ability to seem at ease with each other and not have to "act" the laughs they share and the enjoyment they seem to get from being around each other. An audience can tell when the players are having fun and in this case it spills off the stage, especially when Finn hands out Fart Beer to a few lucky visitors to New Hope City.
Finn and Lucas do find the Vissermatron 3000—he actually saves them from being "re-programmed," with, obviously, his guitar powers—and they start a pirate radio broadcast so that all of New Hope City can hear the music, and possibly be saved from the torture of government-enforced monotony. The entire cast dances and pulls audience members out to dance with them, for a moment forgetting the lurking specter of the Sentries and the oppressive and controlling Daveshead regime surrounding them. They dance and play and sing knowing full well that at some point the song must end—even though it's clear the audience doesn't want it to.
And this is perhaps the piece's greatest strength, in that it gives a moment of respite and hope to all the aspiring artists in Brooklyn (and in the audience); though they can't pay their rent and survive on hand-rolled cigarettes, PBR and friends, this is evidence that it's possible to get their message and their art out there, even if it's illegal and possibly (probably) dangerous to their health. Though there is a happy ending of sorts, as the mood is high and everyone is dancing, Finn and Lucas learn nothing new about their predicament and how to fix it—there is no way to tell if anything has changed in New Hope City—though making music and getting it out to the masses seems like a start. But this is exactly what Pass Kontrol seem to be getting at: to change anything you sometimes have to circumvent the proper channels and create your own, and even though it feels like nothing new is happening right now, it most certainly will in the future.
(photo credit: Pass Kontrol)