The impression you get watching the four actors in Problem Radical(s) performing their different actions is that you’re peering into a squat full of anarchists who are trying to act out competing beliefs and ideas, which shift and change over the course of the hour and a half performance. My own limited experience with squats and anarchists tells me that the one thing missing in that picture is spray painted obscenities on the walls – but the wheat-pasting of xeroxed images onto the cardboard set pieces came pretty close.
The group that created this show, Object Collection, is calling it an experimental opera. The term opera is used in its purest form here – there is music and a kind of tonal speaking throughout the piece, but none of the melodrama or arias of the traditional form. The music is a noise-y guitar, bass, keyboard, and computer creation by Travis Just that often overtakes the words being spoken by the actors, though this is likely due to the challenges of mixing sound in P.S.122’s downstairs space.
Unless you read your program closely, you’re unlikely to know that this piece is different every night. They’ve given the work a modular structure that they reorder for each performance – the actors wear wristbands with cribbed notes to guide them. The group’s intention in this is to add more disorder to the evening. And that sense of disorder is strong. There is a lot going on in this work – music, video (both live and recorded), projected text, installation as set, theory, absurdity, non-linear action, copious amounts of costume changing, shifting lights. There’s also a sense that the words being spoken are without clear meaning because the way the actors articulate their words makes them extremely difficult to parse as an audience member, which I’m not sure was entirely intentional.
Problem Radical(s) is an abstract performance piece, you have to let go of any interest in story and just ride the experience. The influence of Richard Foreman is very strong in this group, and it makes sense that they came together as a company or collective after performing a John Cage piece. A lot of people have a lot of strong feelings about Richard Foreman’s work, but rather than tell you a story, his aim is to evoke a wide variety of emotions, ideas and other reactions in his audience throughout a performance. And if you can let go a little, he often succeeds – there are hilarious moments, disgusting moments, frightening moments, and on and on. In this piece, however, there was a bit of monotony in the disorder. In highly abstract pieces, the fun in watching them is seeing how these abstract elements interact and inform one another – think of looking at one of Kandinsky’s really abstract paintings, the pleasure is in the groupings and overlapping and tensions between objects. In this piece, it’s more like there are five or six very different paintings to look at and they rarely relate or interact. That definitely does create a strong sense of disorder, but it’s hard for it to be more than that.
One of the most enjoyable moments in Problem Radical(s) for me came near the very end of the performance I saw, where there is interaction between two of the actors as they hold baseball bats high in the air while chanting about birds at the same time as the music is reaching a crescendo. It’s a great example of the kinetic energy that playing objects and actors off of one another adds to a piece like this. So, this performance is for the adventurous and patient among you, but if you’re a fan of the experimental stuff born of Foreman and his ilk, then you’ll definitely find something in it to think about.