Intended as a savvy deconstruction and updating of film noir conventions and end-times paranoia, poet and playwright Anne Waldman's Red Noir instead trades in nostalgic and trite signifiers of avant-garde theater. From the in-the-round staging, to the 21-person ensemble's recurring chants of "Anarchy!" and the torturous final half-hour of participatory interpretive dance, Waldman and director Judith Malina go through a decades-old checklist of Things Experimental Theater Does. Most of the audience-members dancing and chanting at the performance I attended looked like Living Theatre regulars in their 60s, which made me wonder if this wasn't intended as a trip down memory lane for previous generations of Downtown performers. This regressive exercise in experimental theater is especially painful to sit, chant and dance through because it's loosely structured around a clumsy and poorly executed pastiche of activist performance shoe-horned into a reinterpretation of the oddball 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly. Here, the P.I. doubles as the femme fatale, Ruby (Sheila Dabney), pursuing Jelly (Anthony Sisco), a limping, eye patch-wearing thug who, in turn, chases Bolt (Eno Edet), who has entrusted a briefcase to Ruby's double, Beatrice (Vinie Burrows), who spends most of the play with a young girl (Camilla de Araujo) reading passages from Frederick Douglass's autobiography.
Red Noir might sound like a spectacular mindfuck, but its dated, half-baked attempts at subverting traditional performance never amount to anything moving, enlightening or enjoyable. The evening's best moment comes before the show begins, when the audience enters the performance space, a dramatic, raw basement theater with bare concrete pillars, a stylized skyline backdrop and a great deal more character than the ensuing play. What the performance does get across, though, is how a vital and storied experimental theater company can become a parody of its former self. Members of the ensemble—imagine a Greek chorus dressed like a bike gang—pace the perimeter of the space throughout the show, shouting about chemicals, radiation, animal rights, war in the Middle East, environmental degradation, poverty and every other modern crisis. The intent, presumably, is to create a sense of imminent cultural ruin, but these gestures seem disingenuous and tokenistic, done more out of habit than a sense of urgency. Waldman name-checks all the issues taken up by activist theater in the last half-century as if laying out her radical bona fides, and to avoid doing anything actually radical. (Adam Rapp's short play, Classic Kitchen Timer, currently in the Flea's Great Recession series, takes a similarly confrontational approach, but is infinitely more thoughtful and effective.)
Even in those few periods when the noir plot has room to develop there isn't much worth following. The core cast does more shouting than anything, as if yelling and overacting were the only way to wrest our attention from the noisy mass. Burrows, Sisco and Edet in particular have undeniable stage presence, but it's squandered in the elaborate mess of non-sequiturs and banalities they're made to speak. Sisco gets the play's one truly funny line when, in response to an accusation that he's a soulless corporate henchman, he yells: "Blah, blah, blah!" In a play where even the most serious accusations are empty threats, the only radical response is to call bullshit.