If you're looking for a light-hearted evening of local theater, Theatre/Plague may have you running out of your seat. If, however, you're interested in being "forced into a poetic state" (a dark poetic state, albeit), this one-man show may be just the fix for your existential musings.
Based on the writings of the 1920s surrealist writer and actor Antonin Artaud, Theatre/Plague is a one-man performance piece now showing at the Chaos TheatreArts studio downtown. It is a joint project co-written and produced by actor Atomic Elroy and director Zelda Bubbles.
The performance opens on a stage set as a blackened room with an eerie voice-over of a man speaking in French. A dark figure sneaks onto the stage from behind us. He sits on a silver chest with his back to the audience, clad in black from head to toe, sewn on buckles laced up his straitjacket. Mittens cover his hands. A black, pointed party hat sits cockeyed atop his head. He spins around and with a white-faced, joker-like countenance he draws us in with his first breathy syllables. Soon we are steeped in the crazed and bizarre mind space of the deceased Antonin Artaud, whose life began a downward spiral of opium addiction and insane asylums, punctuated by over fifty electro-shock therapies.
Theatre/Plague is not an easy experience to sit through. Its experimental structure harkens back to the surrealist ideal which denies all orthodox narrative traditions. The production uses devices such as text, voice-over, and creepy back-masking, anti-musical soundscapes to intensify the other-worldly experience, creating a drug-like effect on the audience.
The play probes the very foundation of theater, questioning its most profound core. "What is drama?" Elroy asks, over and over again. He punctuates these spurts with a deadened silence, then answers himself, "It is the mind's most perfect expression." Later he says, "Action is the very principle of life." It is quite possible that Elroy's perfect expression is not in his action, but rather in his non-action. It is these perfectly calculated moments of silence, where his last sentence lingers, aurally written in the air, which create the most dramatic potential for our imaginations.
Theatre/Plague also takes a harrowing look at the Black Plague, comparing the disease to theater in an extended symbolic metaphor. But how does any of this translate in modern times? Although Dadaism and Surrealism may have been born in part as a result of artists grappling with the devastating and meaningless loss of life after WWI, the themes dealt with in Theatre/Plague are still relevant today. Part of Artaud's intention with theater was to "terrify and awaken audiences." Artaud acknowledged the tragic deaths resulting from the Plague, but he also pointed out that others were experiencing what he deemed "death by mediocrity, and death by commercialism."
Although the performance drew me in and kept me transfixed, I had to wonder how much farther the production would have to go to hold a candle to the riotous experiments put on by the real dadaists and surrealists of yesteryear. Were audiences just easier to arouse into angry mobs? Or are audiences today just callous and desensitized by gratuitous violence and gore? What would it take in this day and age to jolt audiences out of their seats, screaming in protest against the bizarre intolerable truths offered by madmen artists?
Atomic Elroy offers audiences a chance to measure their own tolerance levels, and if you haven't joined an angry mob by the play's close, be sure to stick around afterwards to witness the plastic mouse squeeze toy copulation.