Hitting the insulin a little hard these days? Perhaps it’s this eleventh-hour dose of musicals, mainlining simple syrup into your system by the gallon. Luckily, the Off and Off Off Broadway scene has a number of moody correctives on draft. Bonus: the soul-concussing battlefield rite Black Watch has redeployed at St. Ann’s Warehouse, if you’re ready to go back to Iraq. (Hey, it’s as if we never left!) I’m embarrassed to say I missed my first chance to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s ultradisciplined multidisciplinary discourse on the fate of a centuries-old Scottish infantry regiment sent to aid the American siege of Fallujah. A riveting, wraparound assault on the eyes, ears, and hearts of its audience, this epic yet intimate portrait of men at war — staged in a Ben-Hur Circus Maximus arrangement — is as physical and visceral in its mechanics as it is subtle in its message. (The actors’ dancelike movement — graceful violent, hypnotic — is by Steven Hoggett, the body sculptor of Beautiful Burnout.) In a time when political expediency and headline fatigue are pushing Western military operations ever deeper into the penumbra of our awareness, a trip back to Mesopotamia (by way of Glasgow) is highly prescribed.
Speaking of reporting on the underreported: In December (so many Arab springs ago), several members of the Belarus Free Theatre were arrested, as protests over longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s controversial election were crushed by the autocratic regime. The remaining company members fled to the West to tell their story in art, as the troubles in Minsk were swallowed by events in Tunisia, then Egypt, etc. Now they’re performing three of their banned works — the collage/homage Being Harold Pinter, Zone of Silence, and Discover Love — at LaMaMa Etc., and it’s easy to see why a dictator would find them threatening: Watching Being Harold Pinter, the BFT’s crafty and powerful fusion of that playwright’s Weltanschauung with street-level Belarusian political realities, we see the term “Pinteresque” rescued from the glass case where it’s kept (right next to “Kafkaesque”). There’s nothing academic, nothing merely stylish about snub-nosed absurdism and existential bullying when you see it mapped onto the faces and bodies of these steel-spined, superbly talented performers. (Produced in partnership with the Public Theatre and performed at La MaMa E.T.C. though May 15).
Meanwhile, over at Joe’s Pub, experimental playwright Young Jean Lee (Lear, The Shipment) and her grimster band, Future Wife, are rocking out a little show about death. Lee is lead vocalist and chief storyteller, and her tales of personal tragedy come studded with song — incredibly catchy melodies, in fact, with delightful lyrics like “We’re gonna die / we’re gonna die someday / and we’ll be gone / and it will be OK.” Appropriately, We’re Gonna Die is the title of this performance piece, which sits casually between concert and play, and lasts so little time (a mere 60 minutes) the distinction feels unimportant. Whether you find Lee profound or profoundly self-involved may depend on your affection for her emo-outre body of work and your interest in the confessional singer-songwriter mode. Personally, I find her brand of personal transparency — polite, matter-of-fact, and earworm-melodic — far preferable to the dominant YouTube Narcissism.
On the other end of the I-am-my-own-show spectrum, Christopher Shinn’s Picked is a sort of a topsy-turvy Avatar: Kevin, a stolid young working actor played by Cloverfield’s Michael Stahl-David, is recruited by a visionary director (Mark Blum, who’s all backslapping and hale-fellow-you’re-fucked) to star in a “serious”, Solaris-meets-2001 science-fiction film — Utopian themes, furrowed brows, robots, etc. But the director doesn’t want a star, he wants a hero template with just a glint of inner life (sound familiar, comic-book-movie fans?), and Kevin fits the bill. (Casting the dude from Cloverfield is a stroke of evil genius on the part of director Michael Wilson.) What’s more, Kevin’s the perfect guinea pig for a new generation of virtual-filmmaking technology: Beyond simply capturing a thespian’s body movements and mapping them onto a virtual character, this new method will map the actor’s brain (no snickering, please) and extract his innermost id for use in the story itself — that, the director says, is where he’ll find the villain of the piece, whom Kevin will also play. Kev’s only too happy to come aboard, despite a distinct odor of Mephistophelean brimstone. He only starts to worry when he’s replaced in the bad-guy role by another waxed-chest boybot (Tom Lipinski). The movie opens well and gets an Oscar nomination, but Kevin’s career nosedives: His distinctiveness — his inner demons, his cherished lies, the things he’s never had the guts to admit to himself — it’s all been harvested, leaving him, as he puts it, just another good-looking white guy who goes to the gym a lot. He can’t book another job. What, exactly, has been taken from him? Did the camera steal his soul? Picked is smart, sinuous work from a playwright who writes with unshowy depth and unforced menace on a challenging subject, the splintering of identity. But the premise (a shift from Shinn’s usual situations, which run more to the grieving-war-widow and 9/11-aftermath end of the spectrum) feels like a great Woody Allenish brain comedy that’s just a hair too serious about itself. But it’s a fantastic showcase for Stahl-David, who gets under the plastic skin of a disposable person without ever resorting to self-pity or self-help — just an inordinately brave complement of self-knowledge. It’s an incredibly nuanced, extremely natural and highly amusing performance, tinged with blue, and unlike most of what’s on stage or screen at the moment, it’s 100 percent organic.