Meet Joe. Joe is a moderately attractive, 30-something white male. Joe lives in a messy apartment and drinks too much. Joe is depressed, tired and seemingly lost in life. Is this his inherent nature or did something cause this lack of ambition and self-respect. Dissatisfying as it is, we never really know.
Joe is the central character in biograph, last year was pretty // sh*tty, a multi-media show by Norwegian performance group Findlay//Sandsmark that ran at On the Boards over the weekend. The piece, which purports to “meditate on nostalgia and its opposite in technology,” is yet another project tackling the effects of the selfie-obsessed, cell phone-chained zeitgeist of the 21st century.
The show opens with performer Joey Truman awkwardly standing in front of a closed canvas curtain explaining to the audience that he is a performer in the show and we will now watch a video with him in it. Commissioned from New York theatre artist Young Jean Lee, the video features Lee’s visit to Truman’s Brooklyn apartment. Here she films him washing his genitals, zooms in on a garbage can full of used toothbrushes, discovers a stash of foul frozen hamburgers and, in a tender moment, catches Joe hugging his young daughter. Then the live performance begins. It’s difficult to decide how much of the video to tie to the performance—is it a memory of his past and the performance the present? How are the two related in time? The video is a subconscious liner for the performance, which is itself an abstract mix of dance and video.
On stage, Truman and dancer/choreographer Marit Sandsmark perform a strange extended duet of sorts—she’s quick and spasmodic; he’s anxious yet slow, as though something troubles his mind but he’s in no hurry to work it out. At stage right sits the gray-haired Ruud van den Akker at a desk, alternating between fiddling with a reel-to-reel recording machine and cutting pictures into strips and taping them back together again—a reference to Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a heartbreaking, midcentury one-actor play that also focuses on time and nostalgia. Once again the question of perspective comes to the forefront. Does van den Akker represent Truman reflecting back on his life? Is he a figurehead for time and regret? Why is he on stage at all? This vignette clearly ties into the larger action but the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.
Joe’s messy apartment is on display behind a scrim, flanked by two video screens showing movement that has taken place on stage just seconds before: Sandsmark sprawled out on a patch of fake grass, caught up in seizure-like motions, Sandsmark walking slowly around the stage, Truman’s hand resting on her shoulder or gripping the back of her neck. He dominates, seeming to control her movements, yet sentimental—she times she walks away from him and, arm outstretched, he reaches for her as she leaves. Joe needs to get his act together, but small, humanizing moments leave us considering what might have led him to this state.
The audio, however, is abominable—buzzes, crackles, distortion, screeches and all other matter of noises amplified to a near-painful level. On Friday several patrons stood up and walked out mid-show during a particularly intense section. The repetitive nature of the performance caused lulls in attention, and a less irritating soundtrack would have made it easier to concentrate.
The person next to me commented that, “people are taking one sad, loser’s terrible life, putting it on stage and calling it art.” While I don’t share quite the same intensely vitriolic reaction—there is a redeeming thematic exploration happening—this show just doesn’t stand out in today’s litany of contemporary works taking on the great slippery slope of technology, nostalgia and its effect on our lives.