Do androids dream of electric sheep? Or to put the question the other way, are humans just extremely complex machines? If we are machines, is the ability to manipulate others (i.e. politics) a purely technological problem? More importantly, is there something outside technology? Theater Reverb’s new show initium / finis poses these questions through a pastiche of classic sci-fi noir movies and cabaret style performance framed by a mash-up of Hindu and Christian myth. But rather than plumbing the depths of the mystery to find its bottom, they multiply it, refracting it through stagecraft, creating an atmosphere mixed with the angst of modernity or/and the awe of religion.
Beyond initium / finis’s particular references to Philip K. Dick, specifically Ridley Scott’s visual interpretation of Dick’s story in Blade Runner, the play also draws on footage and story from Fritz Lang’s classic German expressionist sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis and indirectly from Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale, also known as “the Japanese Hunger Games.” Writer / performer Kristin Arnesen’s multi-layered collage of sci-fi classics imaginatively integrates multi-media, multi-genre, multi-method performance and synthesizes recorded and live sounds and songs, live action, recorded video, and live video feeds projected concurrently with the performance into the staging to both emphasize and naturalize the interface between humanity and technology. The technique that makes the integration work, however, is the old-fashioned technology of theater, of performance and voyeurism, that forces the audience to either empathize with the action or recognize their distance from it.
But first, what exactly is “technology?” These days “tech” means electronic devices, and initium / finis uses electronic tele-devices as well as any Off-Broadway production I’ve seen. However, by “the technology of theater” I mean the dramatic techniques of Modernism — breaking down the fourth wall, foregrounding the technologies of voyeurism (illuminated stage, darkened house, the proscenium separating the two) and denying simple emotional identification on the part of the audience — that are now as ubiquitous (and invisible) as the iPhone or the internet. Since Brecht these modernist practices have been developed as tools intended to unearth the raw, visceral emotion obscured by mythology, which is the foundation of “traditional,” pre-Modern theater.
To understand what is a stake, consider technology as way of defining the world that reciprocally defines us. In the first instance we use technology to master our thoughts. Language arts and mathematics are technologies that use symbols to help us understand our environment. In the second instance we use technology to redefine our environments. Technology not only gives us the ability to produce enough food to sustain an enormous population, but but we can also move it great distances, allowing for the existence of cities like Metropolis. In the third instance, as individuals who are interdependent on millions of other individuals, technology allows us to define our social environments. This has been the case since the first cave man smashed a cow skull in front of a big, black, impenetrable tech monolith, but now social-electronic technologies (like this blog — like us on Facebook!) shape our social reality more efficiently than ever before.
Similarly, technologies of theater — the stage, the lights, the magic — have been used since ancient times to create social environments, realities that are patterns of ethical behavior, signs pointing to what we should want and what we should hate, who heroes and villains are. Brecht had a problem with these mythologically based theatrical technologies because they seek to hide themselves. They integrate themselves into the mind so seamlessly that they stop being “technology” and start being “magic.” By foregrounding the technology of theater he hoped to break the spell of theater and make it rational. Unfortunately, tech has a way of becoming invisible — like expecting the lights to come on when you flip a switch, or the train to arrive on schedule — and now audiences are bored with Ibsen-esque, fourth wall dramas. They like their magic to have a gritty “realistic” feel, no matter how artificial it is. Now we expect technology to tell us beautiful, mythical lies, and we believe them because technology is coldly rational and grounded in “science.”
It is here, at the intersection of tech as myth and myth as theatrical technology that initium / finis seeks to prise open a space for multiplying performance and interpretive possibilities. Ms. Arnesen’s commentary on sci-fi archetypes (for instance, the way she performs robot Maria’s dance from Metropolis in front of a projection of the film) allows her to create a link between the dystopian heroines of those films and the Hindu goddesses that have the power to create and destroy the world. The play opens and closes with Ms. Arnesen singing Sanskrit verses from the Vedas. The verses that end the play tell of the goddess who was about to destroy the world with fire until her lover was turned into a baby. She spares the world so that she can suckle the babe, and humanity is saved. The myth completes the story of the two android women played by Ms Arnesen who represent both the ultimate intersection of tech and humanity as well as the destructive female power possessed by all femme fatales. Ultimately initium / finis is an allegory of the perpetual return of the unsettling, extra-rational power of mythic femininity into an arid, techno-masculine modern world, always on the edge of impotence and extinction. It is what it performs: a synthesis of tech and magic that harmonizes both.