There was a scruffy prophet harbingering in Times Square for three days last week. The expressive sage was actor Donald Fleming, performing a free-wheeling “happening” in the middle of (the pedestrian plaza on) Broadway. Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia (“Pleinvrees” means agoraphobia in Dutch) is part theater, part performance art and part guerilla intervention in the public space. The performance was produced by Dutch director Lotte van den Berg as part of the “Crossing the Line” Festival (and was co-presented by the Times Square Alliance.)
The French Institute Alliance Fran√ßaise’s sixth annual “Crossing the Line” Festival is currently running through October 14 at a variety of theater spaces and non-traditional locations around New York City. The 2012 festival-curated by Lili Chopra (Artistic Director of FIAF), Simon Dove (Director of the Herberger Institute of Dance at Arizona State University) and Gideon Lester (Director of Theater Programs at Bard College)-includes 19 events, and I attended two of the most line-crossing, at least venue-wise, last week.
The audience for Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia included people who happened by in the busy Times Square, as well as those who showed up on purpose. Those of us who meant to see the show called in to a conference call to hear Fleming, mic’ed, as he wandered among the crowd. He was also amplified through speakers set up in the plaza. There was a spare-one woman with an upright bass-atmospheric musical accompaniment. The music, while well-performed, worked against the aesthetics of the roving, ranting prophet figure. Having the musician there announced that what was going on was theater of some sort in a way that spoiled the opportunity for visitors to need to figure that out for themselves.
After dialing in at the appointed time, the first thing I heard over the phone, before I had even located Fleming by sight, was him fretting, “The worst thing would be if they could hear me.” The rest of the monologue was as self-aware as that, but not as playful. He was a postmodern prophet-mediated by a conference call-of accepting uncertainty, celebrating self-doubt and embracing community. Fleming’s monologue inveighed against dichotomies like you/me, us/them and profit/loss. After declaring himself a “body that happens to possess a voice, articulating certain uncertainties,” he called for no more fear, ambition, decorum, skin, ears, eyes, etc., etc.
I’m not saying that someone needs to get arrested during a work of theatrical public art in order for it to be a success, but there’s no use pretending that police intervention is not a solid path to a memorable coup de thé√¢tre. It’s not even the arrest so much as the status it confers, the avant-garde glamour attached to having done something potentially worthy of arrest.
Alas, Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia was coup-free. It’s a compelling idea and Fleming’s performance was excellent as he pleaded with Times Square to heed his message. But staging the performance in Times Square never quite paid off. There was no sense of adventure or risk, no site-specific denouement. Times Square-ness never worked its way far enough into the form or content of the show-it just as well might have taken place at Tompkins Square Park or in Brooklyn. When Reverend Billy, for example, preaches in Times Square, it’s to put himself at the symbolic center of cultural banality and consumerist flash. He and his Church of Stop Shopping use that; it drives the spectacle.
Now and then, Fleming engaged bemused and/or wary passers-by as well as the occasional member of the conference-call audience, but everyone he pointed to or looked in the eye took his address as rhetorical and politely, impassively gazed back waiting for him to continue on with his monologue. No one even nodded or shook her head in reply. The whole thing was just too safe and modest for its site-specific location.
Eventually, Fleming stopped circulating among the audience and stood on a soapbox milk crate to finish his performance. The conference call had been cut off and we were listening to the prophet directly at his point. The musician put down her bass and transitioned to a kind of low vocalise. Finally, the prophet stepped down and walked off into Times Square until his voice died out and he disappeared in the crowd.
The PS122 website describes Habit as “The Real World meets No Exit,” which is remarkably apt. Levine has built a fully-functioning (kitchen, bathroom, etc.) house in the middle of a raw space (set design by Marsha Ginsberg). Three actors spend eight hours a day inside the house running a 90-minute loop of dialogue and loose plot over and over. The audience remains outside the house and is free to wander around the exterior looking in on the action through unglazed windows in every room.
The plot, such as it is, is pulpy but-after watching more than one loop-surprisingly flexible. Set just before Halloween, the house looks like it was decorated for the holiday by a hyperactive 10 year old. That begins to make sense after watching the characters in their fishbowl of fighting, cocaine, mania and gunplay. The action revolves around brothers Doug and Mitch, plus Viv, whom Mitch loves but who is sleeping with Doug. There is an excellent detailed analytical description of all of this here. Habit has two casts who alternate days: Quinlan Corbett and Ben Mehl play Doug, Matthew Stadelmann and Brian Bickerstaff play Mitch and Stephanie Wright Thompson and Eliza Baldi play Viv.
As a straight play, the plot and dialogue (written by Jason Grote) are pretty weak. But that is clearly the point. Most of it is there as a framework to allow the actors to improvise and shift the tone, psychology and emotional impact of their performances in each repetition. The handful of moments when the text gets more focused and specific are the least successful. Viv, expelled from college, suicidal, a stripper, has two awkwardly overwritten speeches: one about Nietzsche and slavery, the other about the semiotics of her “shaved vagina” as a stripper’s costume.
As the three characters descend from tragedy into more violent tragedy-it’s a dark show-audience members find themselves engaged, mobile and active. They must choose what and whom to watch at each moment. As the action moves from room to room, groups of viewers scamper around the outside of the set to find new vantage points. While Mitch and Viv interacted in the living room, for example, Doug would be in the bedroom, texting and talking on his phone in a way that advanced the plot later on. Then, Doug and Mitch were in the living room while Viv spirited a gun from Doug’s bedroom. At the bedroom window, viewers could see Viv take the gun, but would miss what was going on with Doug and Mitch. People who peered into the living room to follow the brothers were just as surprised as the characters when Viv produces the gun.
Watching more than one cycle of the loop reveals a depth to the project that is not evident in a single performance of the script. It is the duration, repetition, nuance and incompleteness that make Habit so compelling as meta-theater despite (or because of) being (intentionally) less than compelling as narrative. Levine forces Habit to take time: full eight-hour shifts for the actors, a substantial time commitment from the viewer to see more than one 90-minute iteration. In this way, it complements other projects in Levine’s body of work; for Actors at Work (2007), he engaged actors for a theater piece consisting of them going to their regular day jobs as usual. That work turned a day job into performance while Habit, turns acting into a day job-that the show lasts eight hours is not an accident.
Like Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia, Habit takes performance out of the theater. If the former didn’t live up to Times Square, the latter used its non-traditional space brilliantly.
Habit is free and continues at the Essex Street Market, Building B, 130 Essex Street (between Stanton and Rivington Streets), through September 30. It lasts from 1:00 though 9:00 pm every day. Allow plenty of time!