Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Imitation of Life

September 23, 2012

Bastian Trost, Sean Patten, and Berit Stumpf; in front: Simon Will
Photo by Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
CalArts’ downtown black box theater, REDCAT, kicked off its Fall season this weekend with another of the kind of performances that it's hard to find elsewhere around town. The multinational performance collective Gob Squad was the weekend’s guest and they brought with them one of their most well-received pieces from 2007, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). It's a witty and supremely clever piece that builds level upon level in a game that takes on history and the way art serves as a form of fractured and inadequate memory. That may sound heavy, but the show itself is often outright silly with a metaphysical complexity lurking just below the surface.

The four onstage performers, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will originally appear as cast members in a triptych of films. There is already a certain artifice however in that the three “films” that are simultaneously projected on the large screen the audience is presented with are not really films but live black and white video feed of the performances the cast is carrying out immediately behind that same screen. The three projections are ostensibly recreations of some of the most famous films of Andy Warhol, most notable Sleep and Kitchen. Of course Warhol’s at times infuriatingly deconstructed and experimental films aren’t gripping material for the stage, but the Gob Squad players know this and instead give their characters plenty of dialog and action that reflects on the idea of Warhol’s film work as a time capsule and the way in which we view the historical relevance of artistic works. Sleep, a single shot film of someone sleeping, now becomes a satire of the acting process itself as various cast members reflect on their inability to get into the role of Warhol's original sleeper. Often Gob Squad's commentary is played for laughs as when Berit and Bastian pretend to snort instant coffee as a substitute for the drugs they assume their 1960s counterparts would have used. There are oodles of contemporary neuroses which serve as an intentional counterpoint to the exploratory angst of Warhol’s Factory and its many denizens.

Of course God Squad’s Kitchen goes even further in its intellectual gambit. Soon the boundaries between the three running films break down and cast members trade and exchange roles in different films taking over the performances of their peers. And by mid-way, each of the performers is furthermore replaced by a stand in randomly selected from the audience who appear in the live streamed performances as the original cast members sit in their former audience seats feeding them their lines one at a time. This most direct manner of implicating the audience in the performance is deft and highly affecting. On the opening night, the cast was blessed with superb and uncanny replacements including the gorgeous and super talented Ayana Hampton who craftily dove into the neurotic gay persona of Simon with zeal. Granted Gob Squad's Kitchen doesn't always maintain its intensity and can get caught up in its own absurdity veering towards tedium. But considering the source material of Warhol's own films. these are not qualities to be expunged, but celebrated. All of which were expertly done in this promising start to the REDCAT season.

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