“Time is a rubbery thing,” quipped neuroscientist David Eagleman in a recent New Yorker profile. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.” Far from the steady ticking of a clock, our sense of time is deeply subjective and malleable. To make matters worse, Relativity has shown that not only our perception, but the actual physical passage of time is entirely bound up with the relative motion of the observers. If one twin stays on Earth while the other gets on a spaceship and travels at nearly the speed of light, he will return to find that he has aged considerably less than his sibling. According to most physics, actually, time shouldn’t really exist at all—it’s just a quirk of the equations that can be easily written out. After millennia of work from scientists and philosophers, the subject of time has only become more elusive, less substantial.
Panoply Performance Lab and thingNY’s Time: A Complete Explanation in Three Parts presents the company’s collective ruminations on this daunting subject. Filled with music, poetry, movement, video, and audience participation, Time takes a more-the-merrier pastiche approach to its subject, attempting to illuminate as many of its facets as possible within the scope of the piece. As the audience enters the theater, the ensemble is arrayed around the space, engrossed in their own little theatrical moments, just as they will be once more when the show ends. This open book-ending creates the sense of an ongoing process into which we are temporarily dropping, rather than a fixed event. However, this abundance also serves to muddy the ultimate impact of the piece. At an hour and forty-five minutes the wealth of material becomes a bit overwhelming, lacking a clear-enough structure to guide the audience through it. While there obviously is an organizing principle to the piece (as evidenced by its titular three parts), the material is presented in such a way that its underlying logic remains largely oblique.
Two of the show’s running bits illustrate the dilemma. The show’s most returned-to gesture is three simultaneously speaking archetype figures (Priest-Scientist, Poet-Photographer, Architect-Mason). The chaos gives the audience agency to engage with the presented landscape of ideas as they choose. Though interesting initially, by the fourth time through it verges on tedious with no tangible increase in the stakes. On the other hand “Paul Pinto’s One-Minute Lectures on Everything He Knows About Time” have Mr. Pinto relate anecdotes and ideas about the subject in the allotted time as dictated by a bell. His rambling presentation comes of as slightly endearing but largely ineffectual as he stumbles through the Radiolab-like stories. The content is interesting and the performer is likable, but the presentation is detrimentally rough.
At some of its best moments the show forces the audience to tangibly engage with their sense of duration. Early on everyone is asked to take their neighbors' hands and hold them in collective silence for exactly thirty-five seconds, which, while negligible in real life, is nearly endless in heightened theatrical time. The show ends with the audience being instructed to set their cell phone alarms for fifteen minutes, at which point they are free to leave. The cast then instructs them in and demonstrates a series of exercises which they can do after the show in order to continue engaging their sense of time. This engaging union of form and content shows how effective the piece could be with a more cohesive vision.
The program is a hardbound book including the entire script, score, and extensive notes from the piece's development, available for purchase after the show. This glut of information is charming as one gets the sense of being eagerly welcomed and given full access to their clearly fruitful process. However, the evening never evolves past this feeling of a workshop presentation. Without a firmer editorial hand it never gels into the cohesive piece of theater that it should be.