NIGHTMARES: a demonstration of the Sublime

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 2, 2013

In the 19th century, as photography became widespread and popular, some people wondered whether our ability to forever "have" an exact representation of any object might compromise our ability to create subjective art about the same object. Today, as technology empowers us to record EVERYTHING in our lives and enshrine it on Facebook or share it via Twitter, the question of our relationship with what's "real" and "natural" on the one hand and with images of reality on the other becomes more and more central.

Here's another conundrum: not so long ago, it used to be really difficult and/or expensive to copy the work of others: you had to write stuff out longhand or type it on a typewriter if you intended to commit an act of literary plagiarism; only those with high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment could duplicate a recording of music or a film. Not so today, as again technology facilitates, possibly even encourages one-click reproduction that in another era might have been called stealing. We live in a world of sampling and mashups, of reposting and retweeting appropriated material, of the most mundane depiction of reality going viral while more fragile artworks languish virtually unknown and unseen.

All of this heavy thinking comes after viewing NIGHTMARES: a demonstration of the Sublime, the newest piece by Buran Theatre. This is the second Buran show I've seen (the first was The House of Fitzcarraldo, last March, also at the Brick in Williamsburg); like that earlier one, NIGHTMARES is chaotic, anarchic, and fully demanding of its audience's engagement. It is also enormously fun, and funny; with a serious—profound, even—sense of purpose and vision that creeps up on you slowly and then jolts you to attention with its sudden immediacy and clarity. It doesn't mean anything to say, on January 3, that this is the best show I've seen all year. But NIGHTMARES is a spectacularly smart and involving way to begin your 2013 theater viewing. Would that everything we see over the next 12 months feels this pertinent and entertaining.

So what, you are asking, happens in this show? Well, it's not all that easy to describe. The blurb at the top of the program talks about this painting by Henry Fuseli that gives the show its title, and about the infamous summer when Mary Shelley, her husband, their friend Lord Byron, and two others had a contest to come up with the spookiest story—out of which, it is said, Shelley's Frankenstein was born. All of these personages are listed as characters in the program, along with Franksenstein's Monster and The Vampyre (an allusion to Percy Shelley's creation).

But NIGHTMARES cannot be said to be about any of the foregoing, though it all figures into it. Playwright Adam R. Burnett and his creative collaborators Theresa Buchheister, Marlowe Holden, Jud Knudsen, Nick Kostner, Catrin Lloyd-Bollard, CS Luxem, Geraldo Mercado, and Ann Sitzman juxtapose vignettes featuring the aforementioned 19th century poets and writers with others involving highly recognizable ordinary Americans of today; these are surrounded by a story of a youg man whose blog post about philosophical theories of the Sublime has gained him some modest fame; and this in turn is surrounded by our own immediate experience with Knudsen as himself, or a version of himself, breaking the fourth wall to have a dialog with us that is destined to be one-sided despite his efforts to have it not be. The show contains funny scenes and startling surprises; there are wondrously animated projections of some of the paintings discussed by these characters and a truly mind-blowing animated short film (for want of a better way to describe it) that I thought was based on sonogram-esque views of the human circulatory system but my companion thought was about the game of "Telephone" that is Twitter, filled with almost-accurate, not-quite-synchronized repetitions of themes.

It's an experience that the thoughtful student of contemporary American theater ought to undertake. Burnett's writing reminds me of Eric Bland's in its razor-sharp ability to capture the zeitgeist, a questing generation searching for connection and meaning in the miasma of the social network. The text dazzles as it considers our imprecision and our faulty memories: how we muddle and mix up words and attributions, and what that does to clear thinking. The direction, by Burnett, Buchheister, and Knudsen, manages the illusion of anarchy without feeling out of control. Kostner's set is unexpectedly lovely. The actors—in addition to Burnett and Knudsen, they include Caitlin Bebb, Arla Berman, Brady Blevins, Marlowe Holden, Catrin Lloyd-Bollard, Lara Thomas Ducey, and Curry Whitmire—are impeccable. As our Emcee/Guide, Knudsen is first among equals in a role that really showcases his prodigious talent and versatility.

I love that I left NIGHTMARES with so many notions about the way we live today popping around in my head. So much of what passes for communication these days is tweet-sized, easily and passively consumed. We need art like this to maintain our humanity. Thank you Buran and thank you Brick for being keepers of this precious flame.

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