Images of Emotionby John Beer
Integrating video technology has long been a staple of downtown performance, from the pioneering work of Vito Acconci to the intricate spectacle of the Wooster Group. In (Rus)h, a HERE Arts Center production at the 3LD Arts & Technology Center, creator James Scruggs, director Kristin Marting, and media effects supervisor Hal Eagar have found an uncanny new way to incorporate video technology dramatically. Throughout the piece, major characters are shadowed by a pair of “video puppets,” each of whom hold two wireless flatscreen monitors on which are projected thematically relevant images. The result is a haunting production that looks strikingly novel, even as it explores issues of betrayal and identity central to the theatrical tradition.
(Rus)h centers on the African-American Rus, who suffers from the unusual psychological syndrome deja vecu. Related to the more familiar déjà vu, deja vecu produces the sensation that one has already anticipated every experience—so that, for instance, a person with deja vecu might answer any given statement with “I knew you were going to say that.” While handled somewhat obliquely in the current incarnation of the piece, Rus’s deja vecu leads him to feel trapped within the confines of his life, and particularly within his marriage to Sirene. His growing frustration comes to a head when a car accident at once reawakens his ability to feel novelty and introduces him to the gay hustler Sonny. Sonny, a meth addict, has burned out his brain’s neurological pleasure circuits – he is physically incapable of feeling pleasure. At the same time, he has the ability to sense what he calls “quiet desire” in other men, by which he means the secret fantasy, individual to each man, that would lead to extreme pleasure. After the accident, Rus starts to visit Sonny in his hospital room, beginning an interaction that leads Rus to discover new facets of sexual experience as it exposes the fissures in his marriage.
Part of the growing intimacy between Rus and Sonny is reflected through the video puppets. For instance, video is used to make visible characters’ unspoken desires. At one point, Sonny reaches out to touch Rus’s clothed chest. As his hand runs over Rus’s shirt, a nearby video puppet shows Sonny’s hand on Rus’s bare chest. In addition to the puppets, video reveals character through a back wall video projection which provides the setting for the otherwise bare stage. These projections provide what Scruggs calls “emotional wallpaper” for the various characters. In Sonny’s room, for example, the video projection is dominated by images from ultimate fighting matches. Rather than images of combat, these projections show fighters in moments in which they rest upon one another during a match. Scruggs describes these “moments inbetween” as one of the few opportunities in American culture for men to make physical contact without stigma.
A third element of the staging that helps to trace the relations between Rus, Sonny, and Sirene is dance. Rus and Sirene’s interactions are figured through the use of salsa, while Rus and Sonny dance the tango with one another. Tango has a particularly charged significance for the relation between Rus and Sonny, given its history; the dance began as a way for Spanish men to pass time while waiting for prostitutes at the bordello. Knives to one another’s throats, the tango dancers, like the ultimate fighters, entered a space in which male intimacy was allowable through the mediation of violence. Marting describes the dance as one of the most challenging elements of the production. The emotional drive of the tango meant that the performers and choreographer Annabella Lenzu had to work carefully to make the dance an integral aspect of the piece.
Their success in controlling the emotional information of the dance demonstrates in part the benefits of the lengthy production process that HERE enjoyed with (Rus)h. The piece that debuts February 27th is the result of a two-year process, enabled in part by Scruggs’s residency at Mabou Mines. Last year, HERE presented a segment of (Rus)h (then called simply Rus) as a workshop performance in a form substantially different from its ultimate shape. For one thing, the workshop featured only a single video puppet, who carried three video screens, one in each hand and one attached to his head, all three running cumbersome wires offstage. Scruggs and Marting concurred that this video setup didn’t work, as the technical elements drew focus away from the emotional core of the story. Only after Eagar came up with the modified wireless laptops did the team feel that the technology could be a seamless part of the production. The name change also reflects Scruggs’s larger interest in communicating with the audience. His goal is to immerse the audience in an experience, not to alienate them with intentionally baffling and highly conceptual work. So, when it became clear that no one without prior experience of the piece had any idea what Rus meant, the alternative title (Rus)h took its place, reflecting both Sonny’s methamphetamine rushes and the rush of new experience that Rus encounters.
Scruggs’s commitment to accessibility stems in part from the highly charged subject matter that he favors. Before (Rus)h, Scruggs and Marting worked together on the highly praised Disposable Men, also at HERE. In that solo performance, Scruggs used video technology and humor to confront audiences with uncomfortable issues about race. Taking its title from the horror-movie convention of the disposable black guy who dies in the first reel, the piece featured satiric characters such as the “lynch nigger” who welcomed patrons to the theme restaurant Supremacy. (Rus)h, in turn, presents potentially explosive sexual and social issues such as the “down low” (men looking for bareback sex on the Internet) and meth abuse. In order to get audiences to engage with such material, Scruggs seeks to present it in an entertaining way without betraying its complexity. (Rus)h uses its layers of video, text, and movement to give the audience complex information, but not at the cost of overwhelming them with data. For both Marting and Scruggs, in the end, the innovative techniques that they introduce are only worthwhile so long as they advance the emotional content of the piece. “I don’t like to go to the theater and feel stupid,” Scruggs observes. “I want to bring the audience along for the ride.”
The ride, in this case, is dark, thrilling, and remarkably fresh in its visual and dramatic conception. One of the piece’s most striking effects is what Scruggs calls “painting in characters.” To achieve this effect, a character is filmed with a slow pan from foot to head, and a video puppet then replicates that pan, slowly lifting the screen from floor to head height. The result gives the impression that characters are fleetingly conjured on the screen out of the darkened stage. The effect could serve as an apt metaphor for the production as a whole: it uses technology to bring to life, briefly and evocatively, these complicated, tormented characters. Then it gives them a space in which to dance.
(RUS)H runs February 27 to March 22 at the 3LD Arts & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St. Please visit www.here.org for more information.
John Beer has written about theater for The Village Voice and Time Out Chicago.