"Would anyone like to make an announcement," asks a member of the Brooklyn-based experimental performance collective 600 Highwaymen before letting the audience into University Settlement's Speyer Hall for the penultimate performance of their new piece, Empire City. "Yeah," says a thirtysomething man, "I'd like to announce that this is theater." He, like previous impromptu announcers, is met with applause, and we're guided into the performance space, but what follows isn't exactly, or at least not entirely, theater.
Inside the darkened space five of the six ensemble-members (Abigail Browde, Paola Di Tolla, Lucy Kaminsky, Jenn Kidwell and Ike Ufomadu) are doing something between a warm-up and an aerobics routine, slowing down and eventually standing still, staring at the audience once we've all taken our seats. These purely physical passages evoke the company's totally non-narrative piece from last year, This Time Tomorrow, but here these grueling stage sprints serve as punctuation for something like an actual story, or a story about remembering a story.
As the lights come up an actor turns on a record player, and a garbled, scratchy conversation plays—something about the wind, its effect on a potential game of tennis. As the recording ends each of the actors grabs a transmitter and pair of headphones, apparently tuning into the fragment of dialogue we've just heard. They begin to recite the lines to each other, curious and tentative at first, but with growing confidence, pointing at each other to assign the next line. What begins as an act of mimicry evolves into a memory game.
The recording, it seems, is a tiny fragment of family history, and the five characters are trying to reassemble an entire narrative beginning with this highway conversation about tennis and travel times. Two actors take on the roles of the grandparents heard on the recording, another of a visiting relative trying to tease out long-lost details, with two more in a kind of limbo, all the actors trading costumes and roles as they remember additional details, or think of the perfect question to keep the interrogation going. What follows, taking up the major mid-section of the show, is part time travel fantasy, part investigation, part ghost story, as family stories are rediscovered. But the role-switching accelerates until the actors are grabbing costumes from one another, fighting to channel the memories of the dead as they grapple for the last shreds history. This induces a kind of collapsing of past and present, and a final dinner scene in the grandparents' modest dining room repeats many of the lines played on the original record.
It eventually emerges that the grandfather—identified only by the yellow sweater vest and glasses that the actors pass between them—worked for RCA as some kind of studio technician with his own personal recording projects as a hobby. That detail may hold the key to this entire act of discovery through repetition, of immersing oneself in the record of history so completely that new details emerges. Or it may simply be another hard-won bit of information among many, another piece of Empire City's disorienting puzzle that gathers terrific momentum, coming together through bursts of insight and periods of frustration over the course of this frantic, funny, heartfelt, and even theatrical evening.