The clock is ticking. That’s the big takeaway from “Unexploded Ordnances (UXO),” the new show by Split Britches in the “Under the Radar Festival” at La MaMa. To zing the point home, they set a time-clock in the theater and instruct the audience to set their cell phone alarms to go off in an hour. The moment is dire; these ladies aren’t screwing around.
No sense in beating around the bush. The “moment” to which we refer is the out-of-control presidency of Donald Trump who, among a thousand other roiling and looming catastrophes he’s spawned, appears hell-bent on bringing about a nuclear showdown with North Korea. “UXO” never mentions that threat specifically, for their metaphor covers so many other potential disasters, but the nukes are unavoidably foremost in our minds given that the collaborators — queer theater and performance pioneers Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver — have chosen Stanley Kubrick’s World War III satire “Dr. Strangelove” as the framework for their discussion.
One enters La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre to find a large, triangular configuration of conference tables and three enormous video screens dominating the space. This is the “Situation Room.” It has been set up so that we can discuss a Situation that requires no further description, a Situation so fraught it affects every person in the world. Shaw tell us this at outset, as she riffs with characteristic beat poeticism about the various sexual and gender types this show will be for, and it’s all of them: queer, cis, trans, etc., etc., etc.
The current piece has much in common with Split Britches’ recent work dealing with Shaw’s stroke in 2011. At the moment, they seem to be saying, we are experiencing a political stroke that is afflicting the entire world. And so, after a fashion, the star of “UXO” is the human race through the agency of the audience, with Shaw and Weaver very generously stepping back to facilitate.
Shaw, as the General (very loosely conjuring George C. Scott’s character in “Dr. Strangelove”), is the comic relief and troublemaker. Weaver, as the President, selects and moderates a panel of 10 “elders” drawn from audience volunteers who have admitted to having been born during World War II or the Korean War. She tells us that it is a tradition borrowed from the Lenape Indians to hear from the Old Ones before taking action.
One of the ingenious paradoxes and tensions of this piece is that the very thing our society needs more of — meaningful political dialogue — here becomes inimical to a thing we need even more badly: swift, decisive rescue.
Luckily for us, this is New York City. Only in this town could you pluck 10 random people from the audience and have them all be intelligent, wise, fascinating, and articulate. But Shaw and Weaver aren’t exactly lying down on the job either (well, Weaver lies down, but on her belly and then she proceeds to slide and flop from table to table like a robot porpoise. Don’t ask questions. It’s just what she does.) And Shaw is her usual dashing, suave self, riffing poetically, and even singing a couple of ‘50s tunes: the Dominoes’ hilariously appropriate “Sixty Minute Man” and the spoken parts of the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” Meanwhile, Weaver (dressed in something like a private school girl outfit) is the charming and patient mistress of ceremonies.
I wish I could say one walks out of the show with bushelsful of hope, but, much like the Kubrick film it evokes, the experience (including the public discussion) is apt to inspire sober pessimism. Perhaps to prevent us all from leaving the theater and walking directly into oncoming traffic, they end the evening by reading aloud some hopes for the future that audience members had written on bits of paper at the top of the show. Perhaps the expectation of a single desire coming to pass is all we need to ensure a future.
UNEXPLODED ORDNANCES (UXO) | La MaMa Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave., second fl.| Through Jan. 21: Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 4 p.m. | $25; $20 for students & seniors at lamama.org/uxo| 80 mins., no intermission