The Making Of…

superamas’s empire (art & politics) @ mca, 10/2/10 — big dance theater’s comme toujours here i stand @ mca, 11/7/10.

Big Dance Theater, Comme Toujours Here I Stand.

Two of the most frustrating but intriguing theatrical performances in Chicago during the fall of 2010 were Superamas’s Empire (Art & Politics) and Big Dance Theater’s Comme Toujours Here I Stand. These two plays had much in common. They both focused—or better said, avoided focus—on questions of achieving authentic art. In the process, they retrofitted postmodernism for the digital age.

Empire (Art & Politics) begins as an awful recreation of the Napoleonic Wars. But quickly, it turned out that we were watching a film shoot of a big-budget blockbuster version of the Napoleonic Wars. Then we found ourselves at an outlandish, Fellini-esque or Antonioni-like party where actors, the director, starlets, moguls, politicians, ambassadors, and the cast members of Superamas themselves mingled. The play wore its artifice on its sleeve. The closest it came to projecting reality was when an actual film interrupted the gauche proceedings. In the film, Superamas traveled to Afghanistan to find a “real” war about which they might make a play. The film was a fake too.

Superamas, Empire (Art & Politics).

Comme Toujours Here I Stand turned to film as well. It was a theatrical remake of Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cleo From 5 to 7. While Superamas concentrated on the difficulties of speaking authentically about the politics of war, Big Dance addressed obsessions in certain quarters with retro-hipness, probing whether vintage New Wave style could sustain true explorations of character. Once again, as with Superamas’s production, there were screens upon screens, with video and film and photographs surrounding the actors, scrims and rolling equipment and the bare stage itself continually undercutting any attempt to create a sustained realism. The play cut itself up into a montage, disjointed and ironic, as if refusing to grant any sense of verisimilitude whatsoever.

Both Empire (Art & Politics) and Comme Toujours Here I Stand adopted the age-old tactic of placing a play within a play. Except that the play within the play in each case was a film. It was as if each production was a “Making Of” documentary, some DVD extra wherein “the real” now resided, or some series of unauthorized YouTube clips that seemed, somehow, more authentic than the very authorized thing that makes them appealing in the first place.

Perhaps the two plays most of all responded to our emerging digital culture. Superamas and Big Dance replayed replays of replays. They took up now-familiar questions that have been labeled postmodern, that sought to strike through high modernism’s pretensions with playful irony and artifice, that accepted, even celebrated, the banal, the offhand, the amateurish, the trashy, pop instead of art—pop as art. But if Superamas and Big Dance are developing a (good god!) post-postmodern art, they are not asking us to return to modernism. Theirs were not returns or rejections of the postmodern turn, but rather restagings of the turn.

(*Spoiler alert*.)

That was, until the end of each play. Both productions ended with a character erupting out of the almost-crushing environment of superficiality when they learned that they might have a life-threatening illness. Death, not the thing itself, but the not-knowing whether one will die—or when—seemed to crash through the hyper-ironic surfaces of the respective plays.

The relentless suspicions about authentic theatrical representation fell away and we were confronted by people. We were no longer watching the disjointed youtube clip of the making of the making of a film, but just two souls who, in a stark light or a shimmering digital wall of yellow leaves, shivered before us, alive in the quiet of their mortal stage.


Images: Big Dance Theater, Comme Toujours Here I Stand—Mike Van Sleen; Superamas, Empire (Art & Politics)—Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker.

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