The State begins with utmost silence.
As soon as the lights dim, we obediently silence ourselves, waiting for the pivotal moment to mark the beginning of the show. Yet, we’re greeted with silence, and nothing more than a bare stage. We listen, captive, to the sounds of the fellow humans around us, becoming increasingly aware of the sound of every cough, crinkle of paper, scratching of a pen; it is the soundtrack of willing captivity.
To reach this level of awareness is to invite discomfort. Something has gone wrong. You watch people eye the bare set, save for a table, a box, a letter, a bucket, and hanging microphone, in a single pool of light. You look to people whom you associate with the theatre, wondering if they’ll divulge their secrets as to the night’s proceedings. Many glances thrown in the direction of Michael Dove, in the audience. Perhaps Forum’s Artistic Director’s face will betray whether or not this is scheduled, or something has gone horribly wrong. You’re forced to rely on your only companion: A gentle, nagging suspicion. Maybe you pray that a brave soul comes along and questions the situation, or does something. Maybe you pray that you’re not required to be that brave soul.
To call The State a play is to question the ingredients that make up a play. To call it performance art is to question the ingredients of a performance.
This is a participatory experience at its finest. The onus of participation is freely invited, freely accepted and freely declined. As audience members follow the action, that same suspicion remains. “What is actually supposed to happen?”, “Will we be punished for breaking the rules?”, “Will the camera in the corner record my behavior?” We are treated to our neighbors, and fellow audience members, reading from text. We hear thoughtful, melancholic, and at times incendiary words from the mouths of our neighbors, all about the story of one man in Bulgaria, who introduces himself to us via text as Plamen, a man who has decided to self-immolate in protest of the Bulgarian government the next day.
When does it come time to ask “What are the rules?”
As the story of Plamen unfolds, so too does the story of the room at present. We watch as our friends and fellow audience members. We watch them like hawks, trying to rat out whether or not they’re a performer. Do they speak too well? Do they carry themselves with the confidence of someone comfortable in this environment? Who is part of the show? Who isn’t?
closes December 3, 2017
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This constant questioning grinds between what we perceive as truth, desire as truth, and the actual truth. It, in its simplicity, reflects the confusion of society in a most simple exercise. Throughout the performance, as people come to understand the rules of the space, they begin to impose their own systems within the performance. Others immediately rebel, rejecting systems or instilling their replacement ideas. Others probe the space, curious to see where, if at all, a boundary exists. Things begin to go out of order, and you wonder…is that, too, planned? We wonder if the story is about Plamen, or is this a new story being created, in this moment, about the room as it stands at the present. In a sense, there is a joy in watching people around you shedding the invisible constraints that they had placed upon themselves in a way that would make Augusto Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed proud. Ultimately, thanks to the inimitable resonance that this piece carries, the answer is a resounding: “Both”.
Participatory theatre relies heavily on finding means and techniques to guide the chaos of an audience who has no idea what they’re doing. Participation, in general, invites chaos. So what new meaning arises from the happenstance and the haphazard? Are we, the audience, so trained to seek out narrative? Minds like logical leaps and patterns. We are so willing to impose a pattern where there is none, and eschew careful planning for randomness. The State challenges these instincts beautifully. Creator Alexander Manuiloff has carefully crafted a microcosm, never once holding a spectator or participant’s hand. We decide, at each moment, whether or not we are willing participant, or obediently complicit.
With Dictionary.com naming “Complicit” as the word of the year, a burning statement comes to mind: Performance is a lesson. Art is a weapon. We examine why we go to the theatre; for escape, for pathos, to have a legendary mirror held up to our mundane nature? It takes a rare performance to give rise to that bubbling question within us, especially with everything going on in the world around us. Forum has found that rare creator in Manuiloff, risking a complete departure from traditional theatrical norms. The State becomes a rare performance wherein form elevates content to a painful and exquisite degree. When we, ourselves, are performers in the show, then we have no choice but to examine our own complicity in the proceedings of the night, and therefore our role and complicity in the systems around us in daily life.
Theatre, at its finest, haunts the audience upon exiting the theatre. The burning questions linger in mouths and minds as the performance turns to memory. Manuiloff’s The State sears the questions of the night into our hearts in its own unique way. The take-away resonates differently with each individual who participated in the show. That response, alone, stands as a reason to treasure such an atypical performance; we are given much to unlearn, and a new lens with which we can examine the world around us, and more specifically, the systems that bind us.
The State, conceived by Alexander Manuiloff . U. S. premiere produced by Forum Theatre . reviewed by Jon Jon Johnson.