nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
September 12, 2010
Watching Nick Brooke's music/movement/sound collage work Border Towns at HERE is like driving through a flat state, flipping through the radio. Or channel surfing cable while iTunes is on shuffle in the next room. It's a mix-tape, mashup kind of 60 minutes going on at HERE. Composer/creator Brooke's aesthetic is part computer/sample geek, part John Cage, and part retro FM aficionado.
The sound design/composition is filled with overlapping snatches of music, percussive crashes, train sounds, and nature sounds. Patsy Cline, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, spirituals, Italian arias, Stephen Foster, and Mexican radio are layered on top of each other, fighting it out. There is movement/choreography, carried out by a polished, well-rehearsed group of singer/dancers. There are images of falling, loving, baptizing, and warring. There's a high technical polish to the show, and everything is executed sharply. While the composition (collage? music? found samples?) has moments of lyricism, for the most part the sounds are driving and aggressive.
The show is divided up into several sections; each one set apart with a projection showing the name of a city (Tombstone, Ocean Grove, Silver City) with its coordinates on a map. Seven skilful vocal performers sing the score, punctuated as it is with machine noises and crashes. The ensemble is sharp; they drop, roll, pull each other offstage with ropes, and skillfully execute the tricky sounds of Brooke's work along with the movement. While the movement is never particularly compelling, it does seem to complement the spirit of Brooke's composition, which is front and center the star of the evening. Everything else springs from it.
Each section seems to be dominated by a different sample: Springsteen's "Born to be Wild," Patsy Cline, Sinatra's "My Way," Bob Dylan, Stephen Foster. Nick Brooke seems to be drawn in particular to singers and songwriters who "map" America, feel it in their bones and convey something of this country. The effect is like listening to the echo of a whole country resounding through a canyon.
Some contemporary experimental theatre carries you away with the stagecraft, or ability to make previously untapped connections; think Wooster Group. Sometimes the evening is carried by ballsiness and showmanship; think Radiohole. But with some experimental theatre (and I use this term for lack of a better one to describe non-narrative theatrical pieces) the audience falls into the "What does it mean?" trap. I admit, I fell into this while watching Border Towns. What does it mean?, I asked myself. And of course, a piece of theatre doesn't need to "mean" anything any more than a bluegrass banjo solo or a sunset needs to "mean" something. It's music and movement and lights, and there's pleasure in that. My problem with Border Towns, though, is that much of the sound is so cacophonous—Brooke defaults to crashing percussion and industrial noise a lot, especially as a transitional device. The performers are all miked and layered sounds and vocals come one after another, on top of each other, and all at the same time. It's a lot for the ear. While the performers are absolutely committed to the material, the material as such was not compelling for me. I admire the skill and the execution of Border Towns, but I can't say I enjoyed it. The sounds of Brooke's America assault for 60 minutes. And maybe that's what he wants here, I'm not sure. But his America sounds to me like a madhouse or the end of the world.