The Neo-Futurist Kitchen Review: A Way Too Belated Review, Sort Of

by Michael Lewanski

The insanely ambitious Neo-Futurist Kitchen, sub-billed as “a micro-festival on art & performance” [“micro,” ha], took place at their 5153 N. Ashland space in Andersonville the extended weekend of July 21-25.  In an addition to the Neo-Futurists’ own work, it featured a diverse-but-somehow-related array of “performers, actors, movers, dancers,” local and national.  As a musician, i.e., a person who doesn’t specialize in non-musical performance, I want to call most of what I saw something like “experimental theater,” though I’m not sure that this is, strictly speaking, accurate.  What would be accurate, or rather more to the point, is that it felt experimental to me, and I hope by saying this I don’t induce eye-rolls or dismissive impulses.  I mean that it felt experimental in an easily forgotten sense; in, like, a “um, what are we doing and why are we doing it and what does it actually mean to do something? so let’s try this and see if it works” sense.  This particularly committed, driven, unforgiving, possibly painfully self-excavating mode of experimentation feels like something a new music community could learn from, though to be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure what.  But perhaps this not-100%-sure-ness is what true experimentation does to one, and perhaps that’s why it’s worthy of our attention.

I saw 4.5 shows and I’ll tell you about each one except for the half-show.  Looking back on it, 4.5 shows on this festival seems a woefully inadequate attendance rate, given what was available.  Looking back on my looking back, though, an underlying theme of the festival was incompleteness and fragmentation, so we might say that my experience of 4.5 shows and its woefully inadequacy was itself a performance of this theme.  Sure; let’s go with that.  Better than the other conclusion, which is that I’m a bit lazy.

The Simple Simples are an LA-based five-person comedy(?) troupe(?), a subset(?) of the Wet Hippo Collective, who performed on Friday evening, July 22.  The way in which they present themselves is just elegant enough to emphasize its grossness.  They each dress in different solid colors whose the tops and bottoms don’t quite match.  The clothes are all tight-fitting, emphasizing bodily irregularities, giving perhaps a bit TMI, and eventually, absorbing lots and lots of sweat.  In terms of the show itself: I wouldn’t have noticed this, but Andrew Tham thought they were working in a tradition of clown performance, which I mention to give you an idea of the particulars of their exaggerated movement style.  I spent the entire 90 minutes of the show asking myself on and off “what if people actually behaved like this in the world?”  This is noteworthy because it’s not normally the question I ask of theater; the fictionality of what we’re seeing tends to remain clear and present in my mind, even when the style is realist.  Here, though, their odd motions, alternately slightly too slow, too fast, too big, too excited, too low-key, too strangely shaped, lived in a sort of uncanny valley of closeness-yet-farness from normal human physicality.  The style of verbal discourse is equally eerie in its simultaneous foreignness and recognizability, at one point transforming an audience member’s name—a very average white-guy name that I don’t recall—to, I think, “Slonk,” i.e., something that could be an English word but is not.  The central drama(?) of the show centers around the green character performing a series of ostensibly physically demanding tasks, even though they obviously aren’t so: lifting a miniasture stuffed toy bison, then a stuffed toy swan, finally an-obviously-not-that-heavy door.  Each time the duration becomes longer, claimed to be increasingly unreasonable even though it’s not; each time the character makes a big deal out of not wanting to disappoint us, even though we don’t really care; and when he cannot hold the door for 204 seconds (even though he surely could), he is despondent, declaring that he has let us down, even though he hasn’t.  In short, this comedy at its best; the entire game is an extended reflection on why anyone does anything at all and feels any particular way about it.  Which is to say, as patently ridiculous as ostensible failure at extended-duration door-lifting is, stuff we actually feel happy or sad about on a daily basis may not be much less so.  

On Saturday, July 23, I saw The Backroom Shakespeare Project “perform” A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  “Perform” is in quotation marks because their jumping-off point is a place of being intentionally unpolished, and their preparation therefore doesn't accord with what we normally expect for a legit performance: advertised for the fact that they have only one rehearsal, no director, and perform in bars, the aesthetic of sloppiness is consciously invoked and lived and felt and celebrated.  The actors forget their lines and have to be prompted, one reads his part from a cellphone for the last third, they’ll often gloss a particularly impenetrable bit of text with creative and possible irresponsible uses of the word “fuck.”  My initial impulse was to read this whole ethos, in an unobvious way, as a nod towards authenticity—when one imagines (rather, I imagine) performances of Shakespeare plays back in the day, one fantasizes (rather, I fantasize) about a rowdy, smelly, dirty audience of drunk people, throwing rotten food at the stage, responding spontaneously, having a direct experience with this art that is unavailable to me, hopelessly flawed and fallen 21st century viewer that I am.  Putting Shakespeare in a bar, says one’s (my) fantasy logic, is the closest equivalent.  I don’t think, though, this is the actual reason Backroom Shakespeare “performs” this way.  Here is where an instructive lesson might be learned for musicians: unlike (some but not all) classical music shows at bars (which can, but don’t always, have a self-congratulatory, smug, aren’t-we-cool kind of vibe; ironically, an effect of creating distance from the music), I found that the context helped me engage with the play more.  Though it wasn’t just the bar-ness of the show that was great (though drinking beer is, in fact, engaging), it was the particular way their brand of messiness gave the emotional context of the play a true-to-life-ness that is, in my small sample size of experience, unusual in Shakespeare performances.  It wasn’t just that the costumes and props were hilariously contemporary (though they were; say, Lysander sporting a backwards baseball cap and tank-top, Puck taking notes on post-its); and it wasn’t just that they drank while they performed (though they did); and it wasn’t just that Nick Bottom puts on a Donald Trump mask rather than that of a donkey, causing the play to, in effect, call Trump an ass (though it did, and he is).  It’s that the actual casting tried to out-gender-bend just about anything from the tradition of stage or opera, such that all four young lovers—Helena and Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius—were lesbian couples, and in one case an interracial lesbian couple.  What this accomplished was actually the opposite of shock value or a trying-too-hard mode (which one sees particularly unsuccessfully in opera sometimes) of updating a hopelessly passé representation of the world.  It made the couples seem ordinary because the rawness and power of their love was palpable; it made you realize that everyone is lovable by someone, and that this love is a uniquely, mysteriously powerful force.  In short, it emphasized the only thing, in spite of the 500 years of intervening history, that can’t have changed since Shakespeare’s time: that people fall in love and it’s nuts; and crazy things happen as a result.

Early Sunday afternoon, July 24 was the only musical act on the festival, a performance/presentation by Parlour Tapes+, local cassette tape label/performance collective/roommates/dance-party producers (questionable)/”just put whatever.”  By way of disclosure, I should say I'm close friends with all of them and am thus 0% objective; but that’s ok because they don’t really need me to tell you how awesome they are.  Andrew Tham and Deidre Huckabay performed Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia (here’s a video of the composer performing it) which I'll describe in technical terms: there is pre-recorded fixed media, sounds synthesized from someone’s voice, and there are two performers who make gestures that relate in some way to the sounds.  The relationship is unclear—are the gestures causing the sounds? are the sounds prompting the gestures? are they somehow part of the same thing?  While these are fatal ambiguities, the piece is exceedingly compelling because, whatever is going on, one cannot help but sympathize/empathize with the performers’ bodies.  Perhaps we want to do the same thing they’re doing, or perhaps we want to understand the mystery of their experience, or perhaps we want to know how they feel while performing this piece.  Regardless, it’s a work that brings to the fore the irreducibly human role of the body in musical performance, not only because of the actions of the performers but because of the fact that the electronic component is actually made up of human sounds.  

Also on Parlour Tapes+’s set was Jeff Kimmel (on bass clarinet) and Sam Scranton (on drum kit augmented by firewood, galvanized spikes, a bolt, a caxixi (whatever that is), a foot-long piece of rebar, and “a random piece of metal found on the streets of Memphis” ←---he actually said that) performing a truly free improvisation, inviting a constant question and fascination with how their seemingly unrelated sounds relate; this is especially palpable because Jeff’s enviably careful and parsimonious deployment of his virtuosity is somehow mirrored in, but totally different from, Sam’s mindful, focused attention to the strange sounds he likes.  The final piece on on the Parlour Tapes+ show was a shortened version of Rachel Ellison’s Gymnasium for the Soul, in which she interviews all manner of people about the “subjective experience of inhabiting their own body.”  Small groups of audience members read these interviews outloud, discuss how their experience with their body is the same or different, then perform various exercises as a result.  It was a fitting bookend to Aphasia, about the body in a different way; and it was thrillingly, tantalizingly unsatisfying; which is to say, the full version of her ever-growing project has the potential to be something of unique specialness that may forcefully impact how one might think of oneself.

Later Sunday afternoon was the latest version of The Arrow, a performance piece curated by Kurt Chiang (the Neo-Futurists’ Artistic Director) and Lily Mooney (their Education Coordinator) with a cast of Neos playing themselves.  (Which is to say, the sort of Cretin-liars-paradoxical act of claiming, on a stage, that they’re not acting, is one part a way of inviting you to have a certain intimate relationship with the material they perform; and one part a way of asking what it means to play oneself every day in real life.)  Each Neo has written a (sometimes highly) personal essay based on a prompt; each reads their essay from the beginning, being interrupted by another Neo, who either reads their own essay, or begins a play they’ve written collaboratively in response to the essays, or who asks a question—an “arrow” (because sometimes they hit and sometimes they miss).  MJ Wrobel’s essay is about the slow process of embracing an agender identity; Tyler Smith’s is about an anguished loss of a tooth that’s causing him pain; Liz Baron’s is about a childhood fantasy of becoming a singer and the gradually disillusionment, thereof; Lily Mooney’s is about rocks, sort of, I think.  It’s generally confusing and hard to follow.  It is occasionally funny, sometimes inscrutable, often intensely moving.  More than anything else, it feels authentic.  Trust me, I realize that “authentic” is an impossibly ambitious word—we’ve read too much critical theory to have any confidence that we’re undivided subjects with unified points of view who are capable of fully understanding what we think and feel (“My body goes up to bat, but I don't stay to watch,” as Kurt Chiang’s essay puts it).  So I get why you might think that saying this show is “authentic” is hopelessly naive.  

But it’s authentic precisely because of how fragmentary it is.  We like to pretend, maybe not consciously, that that our lives have clear narratives—my friendships go like this, my romances follow a pattern, my relationship with my parents have trended a certain way—but they don’t really.  We make up those narratives in order to function day-to-day, and the particularities of lived experience are way more complicated and chaotic than a tidy story.  And this—complicated and chaotic—is precisely what the The Arrow is.  Personal stories are not presented as straightforward, and in fact the very formal mechanism of the show makes straightforwardness the one thing that is prohibited.  Content-wise, the stories themselves are mostly about states of change and transition.  "Does anything actually have a conclusion, or is that always self-determined?  Does a narrative need an arc to be complete?" asks Kaitlyn Andrews’ piece.  The arrows, hitting sometimes and missing actually more often, wear their imperfections proudly.  And, gosh, isn’t the arrow a great figure?  Sure, if you shoot one, it ends up somewhere, maybe sort of where you intend it, but maybe not; many things impact its trajectory that you don’t exactly control: the arrow’s materials, the bow, the wind, your own strength, and the precision of your aim.  

The form and format of The Arrow is, in short, mimetic of lived experience in 2016 in a way that one rarely finds.  Less academically, sitting there as an audience member, looking, listening, watching, it just feels very real.  As I said at the beginning of this essay, it seems to me that new music (and I think I mean here the community of people more than I even mean the music itself) can learn something from this, and I hasten to add that I’m still not 100% sure what.  Music is, after all, just different.  It doesn’t deal with questions that we normally think of as “semantic” in the way that language does, and one might claim that this open-ness to a multiplicity of meanings is part of its unique power.  Still, though, one experiences plenty of music shows that don’t have this feeling of realness, that instead produce a feeling of unproductive alienation, boredom, a lack of satisfaction, a feeling of uselessness.  Trust me, if I had a clear take-away message for new music people from the Neo-Futurist Kitchen, I would say what it is; but I don’t.  Maybe the best I can do is suggest that we all should go to more events like theirs.

Because in the end my experience with this “micro[!]-festival” worked on multiple levels simultaneously, was exceedingly diverse, and was strangely unified.  It prompted extended reflection on what a human might do in the world with their body and with their psychology, and it did so in ways alternately elegant and unrefined.  It explored and created forms that existed in a positive feedback loop with their content, and was never insincere or trite.  In short, it was great.  I guess really what I want to say is that I’m glad I went.


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