I’m wondering if it isn’t time for another revolution in the theater. That was my thought as I left “Hi-Fi, Wi-Fi, Sci-Fi,” a dazzling quintet of short plays by Robert Patrick having a brief run at La MaMa. The plays, all but one written from the 1960s to the 1980s, touch on universal themes of connection and communication and, in that context, seem chillingly prescient when seen in 2017.
Patrick, who was one of the leading playwrights of the original Off-Off-Broadway movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, has lost none of his fire, and his plays are as fascinating and compelling today as they have always been. Some of my own early interest in theater was prompted by a 1970 play of Patrick’s “The Richest Girl in the World Finds Happiness,” which was a trenchant look at celebrity and wealth that still is relevant today.
The bloated, economically safe, celebrity and revival-heavy Broadway of the mid 1950s gave rise to the reactionary and deconstructivist movement that bloomed in the area south of 14th Street at places like Caffe Cino and La MaMa. Fueled by the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud that posited that removing the fourth wall and forcing direct engagement with audiences made theater a catalyst for greater engagement there and in the wider society, this was performance that was provocative rather than palliative.
Hearing Patrick’s original voice today and feeling the urgent passion that moves through these plays in comedy, anger, and pointed satire is a reminder of how vital and engaging theater can be. Especially in the current political climate, voices of opposition that challenge the status quo are critical. Small though any one voice may be, the hope is that their accumulation will have transformative power. At the very least, artists must try.
The five plays — “Action,” “Camera Obscura,” “All in the Mind,” “Simultaneous Transmissions,” and “Anything Is Possible” — play with theatrical form and use a variety of technologies. The audience stands almost throughout as the plays unfold around and among it, eliminating any barrier between them and the work. The plays touch on everything from how narrative is created in “Action” to how technology that is supposed to bring us together may be distancing us in “Camera Obscura.” In “All in the Mind,” Patrick looks at the dangers of “groupthink” and the illusion that if we are all the same the world will be better. Juxtaposed against that is a searing critique of the violence created by unquestioning belief in “Simultaneous Transmissions.”
“Anything is Plausible,” which is getting its world premiere in this production is a meta meditation on theater itself. Set in 2125, it is positioned as a revival of the earlier piece “All in the Mind.” In the stylized recreation of the piece, which the audience has just seen minutes before, the new version of the play loses its edge and immediacy and becomes an indictment of art robbed of its politics and a cry for an activist theater that can shake an audience out of its complacency.
What’s so fascinating about these five plays historically is that there is a direct line from Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty to Brecht’s Alienation Effect to the present day.
Yet what makes this powerful theater is not artistic theory but the galvanizing and immersive experience of each of the plays. Directors Billy Clark, Jason Trucco, and Park Il Kyu brilliantly orchestrate each of the pieces using video, traditional staging, and a changing environment to enroll the audience in each piece. The company includes Agosto Machado, John Gutierrez, Valois Marie Mickens, and Yeena Sung in a variety of different roles, and bring clarity and definition to each. Especially when the subject matter is abstract, precision is critical to performance, and each of these actors achieves that beautifully.
At the end of the performance, Patrick himself came out and sang a song that touched on the tragedy of separation among people that is a staple of our contemporary culture. It’s an argument he’s made throughout his career, and his solution would seem to be theater, with its power to bring us together, challenge and connect us, and to shake us awake.
HI-FI, WI-FI, SCI-FI | La MaMa, 66 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Feb. 19: Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $20-$25 at lamama.org or 212-532-3101 | One hr., no intermission