Running Out of Time 

Time: A Complete Explanation in Three Parts
Written and performed by the Panoply Performance Laboratory and thingNY

A well-made-play employs devices that hide or bury its seams. A good play creates the impression that there are no seams, appearing naturally as an uncontrived dramatic image. Time: A Complete Explanation in Three Parts is not a play at all, but a conceptual multimedia performance piece at the Brick Theater (through May 14) that not only brings to light its own seams, but makes them the focus. It will leave you unbelievably befuddled. The premise: on paper, in performance or simply at another moment in time, we are not we. This problematic notion of a fixed identity, destabilized by another's subjective unit of measure, is well-worn territory for artists. In Time, the seams signify conformity, and dissonance precipitates instability. "Where's the beat?" asks a member of the ensemble during the "pre-show private time." "I've lost it," another responds tellingly, "I've lost the beat."

So unfolds an array of wildly disjointed and dissonant exercises, if not skits—some spontaneously generated by employing John Cage's method of chance—that draw on all-too-familiar tropes and well-trodden theories of subjective perception. It's a cacophony of dramatic readings, 60-second lectures, counter arguments, hymns and monologues, with many performers playing, lecturing, drumming and singing on their own time, at the same time. In one exercise, the "poet-photographer," the "priest-scientist," and the "architect-masonat" sit in three small "archetypal" sets. They recite grandiloquent, musically-driven lines in rapid succession that show their relationship to time and to the each other. The Priest-Scientist says that "only those who can roll their eyes back in their skulls and preach the logic that emerges like a dream from the present," can accurately chart time. The other two follow suit in their own respective, self-aware ways until the exercise ends abruptly. Later on, as the ensemble sings about present, past and future, the audience is asked to join in a trite refrain: "Time moves over again, yes it does." Like everything else in the work, it doesn't make a clear statement or much sense as much as it tries to get you thinking about time.

All of this, however, is not just simple nonsense; it is hyper-structured nonsense. The playbill is a 300-page hardcover book given to each member of the audience, with the script, scores, exercises, notes and development history. The audience also runs on their own time—they leave when the alarms on their cell phones ring at 9:44pm while the ensemble continues to ramble. Lodged within this contrived mess is a rather ingenious circular structure. The piece continues ad infinitum beyond the theater as the audience performs the endless exercises scripted in the playbill ($15 to take home). Hence a complete explanation only comes from the continued exploration, provided anyone is willing to participate.

The performance is virtually limitless, which is not to say that it is entirely original or experimental either. Parts remind of Samuel Beckett's Play, one of his lesser-known late works in which three actors sit in urns reciting incomprehensible rapid-fire monologues at the spotlight's command. Time picks up that exact technique, but does away with the urns and has the cast scattered around the performance space. They recount the saga of Aunt Suzie's death in a hectic flow of disjointed narratives from the husband, the son, the paramedic, and Suzie herself. Eventually the voices encroach on each other and blend into an incomprehensible sensory assault. If the plot of her death never clearly unfolds, two rather obvious things can be gleaned from the exercise: reality is highly subjective and the units by which we measure it, numbers, years, hours, etc., are arbitrary. Unlike in Play, these techniques are reduced to curiosities and rarely sustained long enough for a dramatic effect. They make as much sense as the ensemble's 60-second lecture on Einstein's relativity. The title itself, preposterous and possibly tongue-in-cheek, is a satire underlining the futility of simple structures in their attempt to achieve some sort "meaning." It underscores the absurdity of Panoply Performance Laboratory and thingNY's endeavor. By setting the highest, undoubtedly unattainable expectations, they set no expectations at all.

(photo courtesy thingNY and Panoply Performance Laboratory)

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