Created and Conceived by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty
Off Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 10.29.17
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, Manhattan
by Sarah Weber on 11.2.17
Jim Fletcher and Laura Bartczak in Why Why Always. Photo by Paula Court.
BOTTOM LINE: A cine-performance of a 1965 sci-fi film noir.
In the mid-twentieth century French film critic Jean-Luc Godard began putting film criticism aside to craft his own films. As he acquired a reputation for playing with genre, Godard presented France his sci-fi film noir Alphaville in 1965. Unlike our typical notions of science fiction, Godard filmed the entirety of Alphaville in the streets of Paris, and his actors were all dressed in the fashions of the day. Using only contemporary scenery and slight adjustments in language, he successfully creates a not-so-distant future—a world in which people rely so heavily on technology it literally governs our existence. Bringing this film into the twenty-first century are multi-platform artists Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty in their new cine-performance Why Why Always. Using a combination of screens, live film, dance, and audio design, they have attempted to translate Godard’s imagination to the stage.
Upon entering the theater you find a woman sitting center stage sliding an assortment of objects on an illuminated table. As her slow, deliberate motions are magnified on two screens, eerie music repeats over and over, creating the sense that the woman has been moving these pieces forever, and will continue to do so indefinitely. Some time after the house lights dim two women enter, watch for a bit, then proceed to tell jokes with the enthusiasm and musicality of an automaton. Why are they doing this? You will soon learn that in Alphaville asking why is futile— forbidden, even—everything that happens here happens just because.
A narrator explains we will follow the journey of Lemmy Caution, played by Jim Fletcher, who has an uncanny resemblance to Eddie Constantine’s performance in the original film. Caution is a spy for “the Outerlands,” and has come to Alphaville to locate a lost agent and retrieve Professor Von Braun, one of the many characters played adeptly by Elizabeth Carena. Von Braun is the creator of the super computer Alpha 60, which controls all facets of life in Alphaville: its laws, philosophies, education system, even the very words that are and are not permitted. Disguised as a journalist, Caution befriends Von Braun’s daughter Natacha (also played by Carena), and he must navigate this emotionless world full of repressed customs, women programmed to be “seductresses,” and impromptu assassination attempts, if he is to complete his mission. To quote Caution, “Everything weird is ‘normal’ in this damn town,” and it’s hard to disagree.
Why Why Always quotes Alphaville in its clever use of live film projected on a scrim or the back wall to recreate Godard’s shots. The play also seems to use nearly all of Godard’s dialogue word for word. And Irons and Petty use ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) elements throughout the piece. For those unfamiliar with ASMR, it describes the tingling sensation one may feel in response to specific stimuli, such as a soft whispering voice, repetitive sounds or tasks, or altruistic personal attention. ASMR elements are interspersed throughout the show, such as a scene dedicated to watching three identically dressed women fold towels in the same way at the same time, or background characters whispering for an extended period of time. Though it seems like these moments are meant to set the tone or environment of Alphaville, the use of ASMR is inconsistent enough that it’s difficult to say if it has any purpose or if it’s there…just because.
I could argue that this is an accurate reflection of the way Godard treats his audience in Alphaville. He barely takes the time to explain the strange world we’re in—we the audience are expected to put the pieces together on our own using whatever clues the camera and dialogue provide. This works for film as Godard fills the gaps with shots of other people and scenery, roughly showing where Caution is, where he’s going, and the strange customs of the people around him. While Alphaville doesn’t lose the sense of being dragged from plot point to plot point just because, it’s still possible to understand why characters are where they are and say what they say. It seems Why Why Always tries to accomplish a similar effect with a combination of video, sound, and dance. But this mixture of abstract multimedia, arbitrary uses of ASMR, and dialogue that was meant for film rather than the stage leaves any audience member unfamiliar with Alphaville completely and utterly lost.
For anyone who has seen Alphaville, Irons and Petty’s Why Why Always is an interesting experiment in the spaces where theatre and cinema create a hybrid art form. But to leave everyone else in the dark is truly a loss. Alphaville’s warning about the toxic mixture of technology and tyranny is as relevant now as it was in 1965; Why Why Always had a unique opportunity to bring Godard’s ideas to a new audience. Instead, I’m afraid that in alienating the audience, Why Why Always may leave people unengaged and uninterested in the story it tries to tell.
(Why Why Always played at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grant Street, through October 29, 2017. Tickets were $25 and were available at abronsartscenter.org or by calling 212.352.3101.)
Why Why Always is created and conceived by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty. Video and Live-Processing by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty. Additional Music by Brian Rogers. Costumes and Props by Amy Mascena. Creative Technology Design by Danli Hu and Lauren Petty. Sound Engineer is Ian Douglas-Moore. Lighting Consultant is Jon Harper. Ending Choreography originated by Shandoah Goldman. Stage Manager is Randi Rivera. Technical Consultant is Bill Kennedy.
Live cast is Jim Fletcher, Elizabeth Carena, Laura Bartczak, and Marion Spencer. Video performers are Scott Shepherd and Madeline Best. Narration by Christina Campanella.