nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
December 9, 2009
The Living Theatre helped ignite the indie theatre movement, and its latest show, Red Noir by poet Anne Waldman, shows there's still plenty of life in this legendary troupe. As directed by Judith Malina, the company's co-founder, Red Noir is a vibrant, unabashedly earnest theatre ritual.
So many experimental theatre tropes were pioneered by the Living Theatre: collective creation, non-linear narrative, political activism, improvisational acting, integrating art across disciplines. Many of these tropes have become part of standard theatrical language, so it's truly remarkable how fresh they seem in Red Noir. Malina, now in her 80s, does not re-invent an aesthetic, she simply lets it sustain a pulsating life of its own. Watching Red Noir, you don't get the feeling of an avant-garde tradition re-inventing itself. Rather, you sense a tradition being carried forward with vigor and without ossification. Red Noir is not ahead of the curve; it is the curve.
Waldman's play loosely juxtaposes a noir-ish story about a tough female detective and two counter-agents against subplots of familial conflict, with allusions to nuclear disaster and war in the Middle East. What emerges is a surreal, poetic meditation on manipulation, revenge, revolution, and redemption. Malina sets all this firmly in the Lower East Side, linking the play to the streets right outside its doorstep. She also makes Red Noir a classic Living Theatre "ritual"—a transformative experience shared by ensemble and audience in the best Grotowskian tradition.
Video and live film feature prominently. Scenes of the city streets periodically flash on a white screen. In certain key moments, actors' live speech is juxtaposed with recorded images of them saying the same speech, but shot from a different angle. It all serves to disorient the audience, constantly making us re-evaluate reality.
The words "anarchy" and "do no harm" are repeated throughout, becoming a mantra of non-violent resistance. It's a compelling utopian ideal (itself echoed in another repeated phrase, "the war will never happen") but the violent images of war in Afghanistan projected on screen keep Red Noir from descending into self-indulgent fantasy.
A sensuous chorus, dressed all in black, constantly observes and surrounds the action. They walk, run, dance, and sing on platforms that encircle the entire theatre space. They shimmy. They fall. They waltz. They jump off the platforms to sit in the audience. And, in the end, they take the audience's chairs away, breaking the final boundary. In the wrong hands, this device could be cloyingly precious, but at the Living Theatre, it's a disorienting yet transcendent joy.