nytheatre.com review by Andrew Rothkin
April 6, 2012
“This is probably gonna get strange,” I warned my friend prior to the opening night of Broke House, the latest from Caden Manson and his ever-game Big Art Group. “Good,” she replied. “I like strange stuff.” And strange, indeed, it was.
At the conclusion of the piece, when she asked me what kind of theatre it was, I said I really couldn’t say… Experimental? Performance Art? But it did have some sort of story…
“Broke House is Chekhov’s Three Sisters, reality TV, Grey Gardens and Jack Smith diced up and served fresh in a visually and technologically stunning, lighting fast performance matrix,” their press materials told me. And yeah—thank God for press materials—I guess that kind of says it.
Essentially, the piece involves a filmmaker shooting a documentary about a filmmaker who is shooting a film, and the piece shifts back and forth between the crazy world of the actors/movie-makers and the even crazier world of the film-within-the-play. If that sounds confusing, it was—but I believe that was part of the point…a madcap party on the senses.
I first became acquainted with Manson/Big Art Group in 2001 by attending with their interesting and well-executed Shelf Life. But it was their fascinating, exhilarating and visually breathtaking Flicker in 2002—a tour de force of interplay between live video and live performance, their signature style—that made me a true, hardcore fan. I have since seen several of their works, and their pieces encompass a gamut of emotions and human experiences, from the ridiculous to the profound, from the silly to the macabre.
Broke House is well done. The actors do a fine job, especially the leads (Edward Stresen-Reuter, Matthew Nasser, the sultry Heather Litteer and the exceptional David Commander), and they play on their functional set (design by Caden Manson and Jeffrey Ralston) like kids on a surreal jungle gym, often dashing from “room” to “room” (a structure of wooden posts and beams that reminded me of office cubicles), sometimes with great intensity, sometimes with zany abandon, but always with intention. Jemma Nelson’s sound design and Hillery Makatura’s lighting design are right on track, adding well-chosen and fun layers to the madcap, all-over-the-place effect of the show, but as Big Art Group does so brilliantly, it is the interplay of the live actors with live video feed (designed by Caden Manson and Jared Mezzocch, and technically achieved by Dan Hansell) that makes the evening special, as one actor films the others and projects the documentary of the prime story line, as well as the other-worldly film-within-the-play, onto multiple surfaces here, there and everywhere.
Big Art Group is always worth exploring, especially for those of us with an interest in non-traditional theatre and/or multimedia performance. Even when their experiment goes awry, their work is always absorbing—and in my humble opinion, much more stimulating and much more worth my time than much of what the New York commercial theatre has had to offer as of late.