Text by Kathryn Hamilton in collaboration with Kelsea Martin and Cyrus Moshrefi;
Directed by Kathryn Hamilton
Produced by Sister Sylvester
Off Off Broadway, Performance Art
Runs through 9.19.15
JACK, 505 1/2 Waverly Avenue, Brooklyn
by Zahra Sadjadi on 9.14.15
Kelsea Martin and Cyrus Moshrefi in They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: A complicated, multi-layered, and provocative performance piece based on an underground film about the power of an artist to effect social change.
At its simplest, They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain is a play based on the 1969 film The Fall by British avant-garde filmmaker Peter Whitehead. That film centers around events related to social change occurring in 1968 in New York, particularly on the campus of Columbia University. According to Kathryn Hamilton, They Are Gone's director, primary author, and one of its performers, The Fall is so significant that after a rare screening it mobilized a group of Greek students to revolt against their government in 1973, which culminated in the restoration of democracy in that country. Maybe that is true, but this is not a screening of Whitehead’s film. Instead, They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain is a performance built around three performers’ experience of viewing Whitehead’s film.
Hamilton learned of Whitehead’s relatively unknown film during an academic lecture, deepened her interest while writing an essay for Vice magazine, and subsequently envisioned this project as a film screening of Whitehead’s underground documentary. But ultimately, there are only a few excerpts of the documentary that made it into the play. Hamilton acknowledges that when fellow performers Kelsea Martin and Cyrus Moshrefi came aboard the project, the play evolved into a “generative” work about the intersection of the performers with the film rather than a traditional play. Much of the work involves the performers overlapping with each other to interject their perspectives, interviews, anecdotes, analysis, and “performances,” some of which are inspirations from and riffs off of the original source material.
Stylistically, They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain gives a nod to those parts of Whitehead’s film which emphasize experimentation, exhibitionism, and psychedelic grooviness. Martin does her version of a 60s frug, there is a live chicken that we are told is a stand-in for Whitehead, Hamilton removes her top at one point (bowing to Vice magazine’s feedback that there are “not enough tits and guns”), Moshrefi wanders around the stage covered in unraveled celluloid, at times barechested and wielding nunchucks. All cleverness and provocation aside, there are the moments when the performers lock eyes with their audience and proffer their notions of violence, indifference, power, suppression, manipulation, art as activism, artifice, action, image, and collective experience.
Such moments lead back to an argument that Hamilton offers very early on and revisits throughout. She argues that in an ideal scenario, the artist becomes the source of a changed and better world because—if the images are powerful enough to translate as reality (not just as an image) and if an audience is willing—the collective experience of watching can transform an audience. Necessarily, the audience must gain awareness of themselves less as outsider and more as participant in whatever event is occurring. The thing is though, while these artists recollect witnessing violence and protest in Turkey, cite atrocities in Syria, recollect family stories of suppression in Iran, or even when they challenge the audience to act hypocritically and walk out on a film clip of a chicken being beaten to death, you never quite get the sense of how those types of transgressions ever manifest in these artists personally.
For Whitehead’s part, apparently he had a nervous breakdown and lamented his inability to ever disentangle himself from the violence he had witnessed. It is fairly obvious that these artists are highly endeared to Whitehead’s film and were perhaps even transformed after seeing it. But my experience of watching their tribute to Whitehead is not best described as transformative, and so perhaps, while their point was necessarily articulated, it never fully resonated.
(They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain plays at JACK, 505 ½ Waverly Ave in Brooklyn, through September 19, 2015. Remaining performances are Thurs 9/17, Fri 9/18, and Sat 9/19 at 8PM. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800.838.3006. For more information visit sistersylvester.org.)