The wise Steve Martin once said, “I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you’re an idiot.” Yeah. I don’t know what I went to see last night. It certainly wasn’t art. Nor was it theater, although the Web site for “Witness to the Ruins,” presented this weekend at the New Theater by the World Performance Project and Yale Repertory Theatre, describes it as “simultaneously … documentary and drama.” And it wasn’t cinema, although there was a screen rolling images. Maybe it was poetry: Some lines stuck out. In any case, I didn’t get it.
But wait! I know what you’re thinking. “This guy hated this play, I get the picture, so I won’t read the rest of this review, which will probably be the sort of self-indulgent disparagement that occasionally titivates the arts reviews of the YDN.” Well, not this critic, my friend! I have a proposal for you, so read on.
The actors are already on stage as the audience gets seated. The play — rather, the re-enactment, or the … I don’t know … whatever this was — starts with an actor reading out of a binder, describing the topic at hand (which, frankly, we should already know, since we paid to sit in this dark theater, knowing we would see a production based on the atrocious demolition that severed the neighborhood of Santa Inés, Bogotá, at the beginning of the 1990s). Then a screen on the back wall of the stage passes images of the displaced inhabitants, and a woman clothed in a traditional garment graces the stage with her presence (finally, theater! An actor on stage! But don’t get carried away yet). Another actor immediately starts filming her, while the narrator shuts up and a voice-over fills the theater, supposedly the voice of the silent woman on stage. Confusing? Yeah, and it’s even more so in person.
I guess you could call the final result an “embodied documentary.” As in, information flows, bodies adorn the stage. Yet, together these devices produce little emotional effect. Moreover, everything is done to distance the spectator from the pathos represented. The screen occupies the very back of the stage, 40 feet or so away from the first row of spectators, while the stage remains empty for a good 10 minutes at the beginning of the performance. The actors deliver, pardon me, read their lines monotonously, their tone unflinchingly austere, their eyes always down on the text they’re obsessively studying, never looking up to attempt — novel concept! — a connection with the audience.
So perhaps this is the desired effect. By dehumanizing the actors, defragmenting the staging and alienating the audience, the creators of Mapa Teatro, which originated this play, are merely trying to offset our normal emotional response so the viewer’s experience mirrors the disbelief and hopelessness the subjects of these real events must have felt. Smart, eh? Well, it would be if that worked (if that’s even the goal here). But I didn’t feel gloom, or despair or isolation. I felt nothing.
I didn’t like the production, but I didn’t hate it either. I had no initial reaction to it, nor do I now, except to ask the questions, “So what’s the point?” and “Why did I spend an hour and 15 minutes sitting through this?” Granted, it went by quickly, and the short duration of the production is definitely one of its strengths, a characteristic that contemporary plays should start to follow, I think. But it did not move or touch me, challenge my assumptions about other cultures, ignite my social consciousness, stir empathy for the victims … arguably all goals of theater, regardless of its form. It was just plain and it didn’t feel … right.
I’m sure it will have pleased many a Yale intellectual — and there were plenty of those in attendance last night (you can spot them from their laughter which fills the air at the most random moments during the performance, in effect saying, “Ah! I saw something there that no one else did. Judicious me!”) — and I beg them to guide me toward an enlightened comprehension, so I can appreciate what they perhaps would qualify as superior entertainment. So, ahoy reader! Don’t take my word for it. Go see the play. It can become material for dining hall chitchat or section banter. And who knows, you might discover a new art form, or find your soulmate in the audience. Then log on to YaleDailyNews.com, voice your opinion, and get back at me.
“Witness to the Ruins” is playing at the New Theater this Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.