Theater of Protest

I’m a firm believer of the “use it or lose it” principle as regards exercising one’s First Amendment rights – so it is then with tremendous respect for civil protest that I was recently able to reflect upon some local expressions of free speech and likewise exercise my own free speech in the process. Of course, regular readers will assume this pious preamble is merely my way of putting the “me” in mea culpa before the deluge of letters to the editor arrive (as is your right).  I think of it more as a little “context by way of a curtain opener,” you know, like Dr. Frankenstein dutifully introducing his monster before the townspeople came at him with pitchforks.

This is how it goes: At a recent protest near the grounds of City Hall, one of the demonstrators declined to answer the questions of one of our reporters. What was at question was the nature of the protest itself, which was apparently unclear. Instead of providing an expository quote, the protestor provided the telephone number of someone, he explained, who could answer the query (apparently, that person was protesting by proxy). To our reporter’s chagrin, the number was wrong. It rang out to the answering machine of a theater group and exasperated, the reporter turned to me, seeing as I’ve done theater criticism in the past.

Perhaps I was unclear on the assignment, or my critical eye was blinded by my love of street theater. Suffice it to say, I trundled down to the Plaza and later filed my review.

Leading the performance was a character I will call Man No. 1, for the troupe apparently eschews traditional billing. Man No. 1 will be familiar to those who caught his recent turns in the short-lived run of “Smart Train,” Broadway and West Napa mainstay “Peace” and the much underappreciated “No on Prop 8.” Again he delivers a star performance, simultaneously barking into a bullhorn and toting a sign with great aplomb. The effect was mesmerizing, particularly as underscored by the bullhorn that rendered his speech unintelligible — a deft and ironic symbol for the futility of communicating in the face of oppression – indeed the deafening din of his own voice left him mute.

Such nuance recalls the eloquent pantomime of sequences in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” as when the mimes took to the tennis court for a rally only to have their imaginary ball roll out of bounds and to the foot of the wan photographer. Man No. 1 shares a spiritual kinship with this moment, such that one can almost discern within the actor’s garbled monologue the existential query “Tennis anyone?” Kudos to the director (also unnamed), who used similar moments throughout this production to say everything while effectively saying nothing. The rallying cry here is “I am mime, hear me roar – not!”

Speaking of sound design, here the production’s aural ambience is represented solely by the incessant thumping of a lone conga drum, was surely meant to represent the “heart of the people” and, given its uneven rhythm, we might surmise that this heart was broken.

What first strikes one about this particular troupe’s staging is the fact that since no one knows what was being protested one can only assume that the protest was a manifestation of dissent in its purest form –  unfettered by polemic or agenda, a resounding chorus of “No” to bring balance to the notion of an empirical, but equally obfuscated “Yes.” This yin and yang pas de deux is tantamount to opera in the key of karmic balance and whimsically set the (conceptual) stage for a brilliant if slightly flawed production. Four stars. Seating is limited because there are no chairs. Just this ass.