Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 27, 2006
Dancing vs. the Rat Experiment, a new genre-defying theatre piece by the company Witness Relocation, is a wryly entertaining commentary on Modern Man, circa 2006 in the USA. Its first part plants the suggestion that human behavior may be linked to that of so-called lower orders more than we like to imagine, and its second part sneakily and satirically pretty much proves the point. It's sharp, smart, funny, and absorbing, and it's been inventively staged by director/choreographer Dan Safer to provide a constant stream of surprises for the audience.
The program informs us that "The Rat Experiment in question is Population Density and Social Pathology by John Calhoun," from Scientific American (1964). We hear snippets of this scholarly paper narrated in voiceover (by Richard Armstrong) as accompaniment to Act One of the show. The experiment looked at what happened to the social behavior of a community of rats as the population grew; the outcome seems to be increasing disorder and a rat version of anomie and alienation. Some parts of the experiment are re-created, more or less, by Safer's nine performers—they're called to centerstage in groups of two or three and we observe their movements as, for example, two males compete for the same female in a pre-mating showdown.
Other sequences are more metaphorical. A couple of the "rats" are directed to recount moments from their lives while another times them, suggesting very vividly the notion of guinea-pig-in-a-laboratory without sacrificing all of the performers' humanity: very cool, evocative stuff. The first act climaxes with both of these constructs sort of colliding as a soap opera is danced on one side of the stage while less familiar (by which I mean less "human") rituals are enacted on the other. Throughout all of this first part, the performers move through a range of theatrical styles and forms, running the gamut from abstract modern dance to something akin to standup comedy; it always feels fresh and inclusive rather than haphazard or gimmicky. I love the way Safer bridges (or ignores) name-able genres in order to create a theatrical entity that feels uniquely his own.
After a brief interlude that I'd call an anti-intermission (we're told to talk among ourselves but not invited to get up while the actors change costume almost casually on stage), the second part of the event commences. This turns out to be live, 20-minute version of a Survivor-style competition in which the nine dancers are told to perform a variety of unusual stunts, with a "loser" eliminated after each round until at the end a single "winner" emerges. This is a deliciously witty idea, and it's executed brilliantly: the specific stunts are splendidly odd, as if made up by a staffer from Beat the Clock in collaboration with Noel Coward. And the performers leap into the concept with exuberance and vigor, embracing the win-lose spirit of the thing so that we're at once caught up in this Reality TV replica and knowingly aware that it's a deconstruction. The point is, perhaps, obvious and lacking subtlety. But it packs a wallop. And we're vicariously proud of the winner, who has, among other things, chugged a can of beer, blown up a balloon until it pops, and crossed the stage while wrapped in a canvas sack.
The nine performers of Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment create strikingly individual characters on their own without compromising the well-oiled ensemble that the work requires; they are Abby Browde, Heather Christian, Sean Donovan, Emmitt George, Mike Mikos, Laura Berlin Stinger, Orion Taraban, Randy Thompson, and Safer himself. The design—playful, efficient—features sets and lights by Jay Ryan and costumes and masks by Pandora Andrea Gastelum. The music is a melange of styles and sounds by an eclectic set of musicians, including Miss Derringer, Skeleton Key, DJ Dragon, Murder by Death, Douglas Wagner, Mobcat, Arthur Purvis, The Borromeo Sting Quartet, and Anton Sanko; it's an endlessly interesting soundscape.
Dan Safer and Witness Relocation strike me as a smart, inventive company with interesting things to say and a unique and evolving vocabulary with which to say them. This piece at La MaMa is a charmer. I will certainly be looking forward to whatever comes next.