Wednesday, July 06, 2011
Be Story Free
I admit it. I’m a Steve Burns groupie. With three children under the age of four, “Blue’s Clues” gets plenty of airtime on our television. So curiosity to see Steve sans his sidekick dog led me downtown to the Kirk Wood Bromley play, Be Story Free, performed on June 30th and July 1st as part of Ice Cubes, a one-time companion series to the 18th annual Ice Factory Festival that features new theatrical work.
Unfortunately, Burns’ part as The Device, a mysterious accessory that promises the antidote to well…almost anything, relegates him to movie snippets and voiceovers so fans never see him physically onstage. In a sense the role, like his long-ago days on the children’s program, still has him presenting the audience with a puzzle, encouraging them to find answers—only this time in lieu of following Blue’s paw prints, there’s periodic cell phone calls received by the cast and filmed segments of Steve engaging in random activities, such as playing with a top hat, to dismantle for meaning.
There’s much to admire in Bromley’s writing (who is also the artistic director of Inverse Theater, which co-produces the show) with its Mamet-like lyricism, featuring verbal acrobatics that demand precise articulation by the show’s actors. For roughly two hours, the five-member BSF (Be Story Free) Brigade explains their leader’s theories through a combination of film (by Leah Schrager), speeches, group shares and scripted “Q&A” sessions with the audience. Like true acolytes, they gaze at videos of Dr. Jip Syuzhet with absolute devotedness as he showcases his ability to free participants from “primordial narrative infections.” Imagine the fervidness of a Moony meeting crossed with the awkward audience/actor engagement during a performance of Tina and Tony’s Wedding and you’ll get the idea of this multi-platform theatrical experience: part performance art, part interactive theater, part YouTube video.
Despite the original premise of the show, this voyeuristic view into the cult-like seminars of the fictional Dr. Syuzhet sometimes feels like an overly long “Saturday Night Live” sketch. The play seems relentless at some points, berating the audience with its in-your-face philosophy on embracing life by eliminating story: you wish that the BSFers nonsensical lectures and frequent “shares”—brief bits of storytelling (despite their abhorrence for it)—ended after the sharpness of the first act. Everything past that point seems redundant.
Burns’ soothing voice as the narrator of the filmed clips fits perfectly as he questions the followers on their beliefs, gently mocking them as he asks for their stories or utters such counterfeit profundity as, “your love of truth condemns you to fiction.” Besides Burns, videos also feature dancers moving in Martha Graham-esque motions, sometimes by themselves, sometimes over props such as a table. All of the footage serves as a deliberate distraction, a commercial of sorts between the rants of the devoted, as Burns’ disembodied voice talks about an ultimate and unknown device with unlimited potential. What all of this means isn’t always clear, but it makes for an interesting conversation post-theater.
Often, the cast sits in the front row of the audience, almost part of the crowd, as they wait for their turns onstage. Sometimes this adds to the suffocating effect of attending an assembly geared to such constant persuasion—there’s no escape from the frenetic energy that surrounds you. However, it also allows you to see actors fall out of character occasionally as they yawn, drink a beer, or consult notes. Especially good here is Catherine McNelis, whose elastic face twists in anger as she recounts a tale, cursing a blue streak, then easily transforms later to a rapt, engaged follower.
The Ice Factory Festival, produced by Ohio Theater (under the banner Ohio Interrupted@3LD) runs from June 22 - July 30, 2011 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center. Ice Cubes performances are on Thursdays and Fridays. Upcoming shows includes: The Love Letter You’ve Been Meaning to Write New York (7/7, 7/8), Dead People (7/14, 7/15), Americans n’ Indians (7/21, 7/22), Will Sing (7/28, 7/29).
(Press ticket, front row)