“The Other Shore” and “Brooklyn Babylon”: A Post-Human Omnibus Review

The University of Illinois theatre program is doing something new this year, not only organizing its offerings around a concrete theme of free speech and censorship (as opposed to other more abstract themes like “dream,” etc.), but that theme is also in response to local debate. Last week Thursday, UIUC reached a $875,000 settlement with Dr. Steven Salaita over a breach of contract in an attempt to stem academic freedom of speech. Unfortunately, it would seem that university administration is not invested in engaging with the actual constitutional issue at hand, but merely wants to move forward it getting censures lifted and being removed from the American Academy of University Professors (AAUP) Censure List. (The Center for Constitutional Rights has an excellent summary of events and factsheet on the case.) In an email from interim chancellor Dr. Barbara Wilson last week, primary motives were to bring “some closure” and “to focus out collective energy on bring the campus back together…for our future.” Its recurrent rhetoric about the administration’s desire to “move past this” rather than systemically grapple with the implications for and with out students. It has certainly been a missed teaching moment for our students. This is in part why this theatre season is particularly important as an example of art being exigent—giving us the intellectual time and aesthetic space to meditate on a problem.

Ensemble players work in tandem in Illinois Theatre’s “The Other Shore.”

The Other Shore, like last month’s 1984, attempts to cultivate the experience of living through thought oppression. Written by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, the play, originally banned by the Chinese government in 1986, consists of an ensemble of actors assisting the one who yearns for freedom. Its dialogue consists primarily of meta-speak, nonsense and none-sense, evacuating language as a system for meaningful communication. In this respect the play is formally an interesting comment of the hyperbole and lack of value placed on fact in public debate. The stunning and interactive set design by Nicholas James Schwartz is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting, along with the ensemble movement direction by Philip Johnston. Both the set and movement concepts seemed to stress the oppression of the followers on the figure who did not desire to lead—and precisely for that feature is made to and put under threat by larger forces. However, in its abstraction, even in the card game episode, I was left un-stirred by the production overall, although certainly hungry for more ensemble drama like this from the promising undergraduates.

Music and projection work in tandem for “Brooklyn Babylon.”

On the other hand, Brooklyn Babylon, a touring production by big band composer Darcy James Argue and animator Danijel Zezelj, startled me to the core. Told only through a series of projects and the original score performed live by the eighteen-piece big band, Secret Society, the performance is a moving example of storytelling without the body or speech. In post-apocalyptic Brooklyn, the mayor and city elites break construction on the tallest tower ever built. Looking like something out of Tolkein’s imagination, it is to be topped with a quaint carousel. Struggling with the notion of a joy to be reserved for a select few in this period of community rebuilding, the architect attaches mini dirigibles to the carousel so that it might escape on opening day. It lands on a nearby empty beach, which becomes a new Coney Island that brings the survivors together. The several movements are interjected with the quick raising of the scrim to reveal Zezelj in the process of painting this new Brooklyn cityscape. In the last movement, we watch for several minutes as he then paints over the piece with black, reinforcing the ephemerality of art—particularly painting and music, forms which we assign/assume some permanence today—and its connection with the ephemerality of the performance event as well as the tenuous of our communities and their easy subjection to oligarchical forces. If you can catch them on tour, you should, as this production is a crystalline example of what a dynamic collaborative project can look like and do.

Both of these productions link censorship to infrastructural, State-driven forces and activate a post-human lens—a state being beyond human—in order to meditate upon restricted or hierarchized speech. And while it certainly isn’t theatre or arts responsibility to become a utility against social ills, they do provide an event in which our brains are given opportunities to meditate and negotiate issues beyond the quotidian but by which we are intimately affected. Both productions remove from their meaning-making toolkits speech as an effective and precise means of communication. They further remove from their narrative framework worlds we would recognize and parameters of the present. In so doing, bother offer a performance event during which we are playgoers are enticed to consider the extent and way in which we are unknowingly censored and, as the Salaita case reveals, are unwittingly made to allow the censoring of others.

Freedom and expression in Krannert’s “1984”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

The first productions of the season are upon us in central Illinois, with shows going up at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Station Theatre, and the What You Will Shakespeare Company, among others. Due to travel this fall I was sad to have missed the Station’s take on Will Eno’s The Open House and WYW’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Eno is one of my favorite playwrights working today on the problem of disfunction in the myth we call the “All-American Family.” And Dekker’s Renaissance satire on the influence of audience tastes, alongside Eno, are interesting selections considering Illinois’ Theatre’s themed season around Censored/Free Expression. The adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 makes sense on the surface: the novel hits the problem on the head in a distopic portrayal of a Big Government whose agenda is to control even our very thoughts through the promulgation of continuous warfare. It inaugurates a season I am especially excited about, particularly in its spring offerings: The Other Shore (an ensemble consideration on the definition of “freedom” across cultures), Kingdom City (a mediation on the influence of the religious right on debates of contemporary freedom), The Grapes of Wrath (an adaptation of Steinbeck’s chilling migration epic), and In The Blood (a retelling of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter where “A” stands for abolitionist).

Julia (Alexis DawTyne) shouts in hate as Winston (Ryan Smetana) looks on. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

I would have liked to have seen 1984 at the end of the season, however, for several reasons: a) the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago is also mounting a production of the novel, saturating the landscape with the same source material, b) because the play hits the topic so hard on the head some of the complexity of Orwell’s arguments might have demonstrated more complexity—particularly in terms of religion—after say Kingdom City and In The Blood, and c) performing abstract, absurdist drama is a tough one right out of the gate for many of these otherwise skilled undergraduate students. In a world where on “a bright cold day in April” the clocks strike “thirteen,” there is no way to lend it a realism that we might desire from a Tracy Letts play or Edward Hopper painting. I can understand that there might be some logic to try to give a production some ethos by playing the world “straight,” but as in this production, the effect is more often flat than believable. For example, while time was easily described in different increments, the omnipresence of telescreens and loudspeaker announcements of productivity and troupe movements startled the ensemble. They were overtly afraid of being seen by the screens; they stopped what they were doing to take note of the announcements. If these aspects had been truly inculturated, wouldn’t the response have been to treat them as far less novel?

I have written about the tricky nature of abstraction and morality drama elsewhere: for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s recent production of Pericles, for last fall’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War! at Krannert, and the film Calvary, among others. These were largely successful because they do not attempt to recreate the real but rather naturalize the absurd—that that is without and undermines reason: that kind of theatre that works as a “site of passage for those immense analogical disturbances in which ideas are arrested in flight at some point in their transmutation into the abstract,” according to Antonin Artaud. What is chilling about 1984 at the level of text is the way in which it manipulates syntax and diction into suggesting the a absolutist government operates with a measure of reason. For example,

  • “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”
  • “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
  • “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

Each of these quotations are striking and terrifying on there own. Yet, in the lengthy adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan, they get swallowed up by repetitions of dialogue about needing to be precise and the incantatory “War is peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength.” Yes, we live in a society at seeming unending war with the Middle East and one that has never been more litigious with our day-to-day movements. For me, 1984 is most illuminating in terms of not what the government can and does do to censor us, but the ways in which we willingly censor ourselves.

Winston (Ryan Smetana) and Julia (Alexis DawTyne) are almost too convincing as Smith (Ford Bowers) narrates. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

Stress on realism rather than attempting to naturalize the absurd  tends to produce a drone-like ensemble as well, where you do not feel gradations of emotion or commitment to the party amongst the individuals. Perhaps the is the sacrifice in conveying the oppressing terror of uniformity: “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” However, Alexis DawTyne (Party Member: Julia) and Ryan Smetana (Party Member: Winston) were the most compelling to me in there ability to show slippage and fluctuation in their character’s commitment to Big Brother and the Thought Police. While their ostensible goal is always and only exposition—to reenact Winston Smith’s (Ford Bowers) diary during his trial—the nudity and compassion required threatens to enliven the very thing the Ministry of Love is attempting to eradicate. In small moments where Winston seems to accidentally admit he loves Julia in the real rather than in the fiction (as in, not prompted by the diary entries), exposition gives way to the actual development of an argument for the production as a whole.

Smith (Ford Bowers) is tortured to undo his knack for thinking. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

The part of Smith is equally difficult: how to resist a mad government while not seeming to be an extremist yourself. Furthermore, the performance of torture, and repeated varieties of torture whose goals seem entirely unclear, requires a difficult layering of emotions (fear, distress, pain, etc.). The destruction of his body in the production is intended to be analogous to the destruction of his mind by O’Brien (Ninos Baba): “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” This was visually successful, in that it was disturbing and discomfiting certainly, but seemed ultimately excessive in that the destructive energies were misplaced. In my understanding of Orwell’s novel, Smith stands in for the suffering of everyman, any man, and is not evaluated or valued on the merits of his individuation. We as an audience should not be compelled to have him saved as the act of resolution to the drama because he matters. He actually doesn’t, on his own terms. He hasn’t done anything noteworthy, treated his neighbors or lover with especial or heroic care. It is the threat of emptying out the meaning, the plasticity, the polysemy of language itself that censorship poses. The scenes in which the dictionary is being rewritten and the party member (Brandon Rivera) struggles with the supposed “imprecision” of language as a system of communication are included to distill the real violence Smith’s body attempts to bear: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” Ultimately, the production underscores the threats to personal freedom and the importance of individuated expression, but falls short in conceptually uniting—or, rather, applying some double-think—these rights as freedom of expression. The season promises to unravel variations in the definition of “freedom,” which may give us pause and cause to return to 1984.