Text by Chance D. Muehleck
Directed and choreographed by Melanie S. Armer
In their new episodic information age comedy, Nerve Tank
pleads desperately, often hilariously, for the unplugging of the digital feeding tube. The experimental performance company's latest production, Live/Feed
(through May 29 at the Brooklyn Lyceum
, where they are the resident company), is a visually striking, generally very engaging hourlong dance-theater piece that skips frantically from the Cold War dawn of globalizing telecommunications, to the contemporary data deluge via an abstracted in-between space where communicative acts are stripped to their rawest state.
The performance begins promptly after the house opens, with the audience filing into the Lyceum's massive raw brick basement space. Here, four of the five performers are harnessed and hanging from chains ten feet above the two rows of seats, lit by dramatic spotlights while speakers emit a low, powerful rumble. Visually, this opening tableau suggests an avant-garde version of Chicago
, and indeed, the production values throughout the piece are very ambitious and extremely successful, transcending the stretched-thin means of much experimental performance. Lighting designer Ryan Metzler, sound designer and composer Stephan Moore and costume designer Candida K. Nichols deserve a great deal of credit for the performance's aesthetic force. If the argument being mounted throughout the short segments is a familiar one—in sum, that our information addiction has led to the exponential increase of the quantity of communication and a reciprocal impoverishment of its quality—the inventiveness of each piece, and the ensemble's ability to develop characters with little time and often very few words while maintaining a sense of cohesive group identity makes Live/Feed
While some of the production's component skits are extremely funny, others are unsettlingly eerie, and the juxtaposition of these emotional registers is very affecting. One sequence, for instance, begins on what resembles a café terrace, with three characters on their cell phones, speaking obnoxiously loud nonsense like the adults in a Peanuts
comic strip as they leaf absentmindedly through newspapers. Another walks around with a fan, blowing piles of papers off their tables, trying to provoke the compulsive babblers, to rouse them from their data-binging stupor. When one finally breaks down and begins to scream, the others frantically cover her up with newspapers. Their manic, hilarious and frightening behavior gives way to a kind of ritualized dance. The next segment, more hilarious than especially insightful, finds two friends recounting the disgustingly illogical behavior of a house guest and roommate.
The bright, sitcom-ish humor of that scene is followed by an extremely disconcerting story about dying on the subway told in a rhythmic, disjointed pattern by all five actors into their cell phones, which snap shut like tiny percussion instruments and provide the only lights in the pitch black and suddenly surprisingly intimate basement. Lightness, albeit of a very bleak sort, returns in the next spoken scene, a 60s-style propagandistic commercial that makes repeated reference to the Kennedys, in which characters put on bright smiles and cheerfully spout cruel slogans like, "Adapt or die, baby!" This section ends with the play's recurring motto, which, depending on which character you believe, may or may not come from a Chinese proverb: "May you live in interesting times."
proves quite ominously, these are certainly interesting times. The ensemble of Stacia French, Karen Grenke, Robin Kurtz, Mark Lindberg and James Yu is unanimously excellent, showing the kind of passion and attention to craft that is so crucial to making this type of experimental performance successful. It's hard to become emotionally and intellectually engaged with such a production when the performers themselves don't seem to be, but this is never a problem here. And though a few of the dozen or so segments can seem repetitive or indistinguishable, Nerve Tank leverages humor and stunning visual panache to create a textured and timely commentary on today's informational feeding frenzy.
(photo credit: Raymond Haddad)