The close of Liz Magic Laser's performance Sunday night generated what was likely the most awkward applause I've ever heard: clap. clapclapclap. clapclap. clap? Incapacitated by self-awareness, the audience seemed unsure of when their applause should end, and even less sure of when it should have begun.
It was a victory for a thorough examination of viewer complicity and the political media circus. Similar to her recent, warmly-received performances Flight at PS1, in which references to violent movie scenes enacted on a staircase, and Chase, a staging of Bertolt Brecht's 1926 play Man Equals Man around ATM vestibules, actors reframe bits of political interviews amongst the audience in I Feel Your Pain. Performers – Lynn Berg, Audrey Crabtree, Ray Field, Annie Fox, Kathryn Grody, Rafael Jordan, Liz Micek, and Ryan Shams – are surrounded by a throng of black-clad cameramen and projected on a screen, while Laser selects camera angles from a projection room.
The play opens with a gushy one-on-one interview between Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck in which Palin struggles to name a founding father. Reenacted by a cooing couple on a first date, seated in a front row of the theater, they seem naively to reveal long-hidden secrets to each another. Barack Obama's interview on 60 minutes about Osama bin Laden's death is presented as an over-the-shoulder tÃªte-a-tÃªte between two sleezy businessmen, as though describing an insider trading deal while eating popcorn. “Longest forty minutes of my life” groans the eye-rolling Obama stand-in, then fist pumps as he blurts, “we got 'er.” Most interviews are presented as chats and arguments between friends and couples, except the actors intermittently look directly at the audience (or their own reflections) through the camera lens. This reads as both personal appeal and “a word from our sponsors”; a Hillary Clinton stand-in addresses us when she claims to use “those little Purell things” to wash her hands.
Dialogue is repeatedly framed as an outsider's guide to emotion; crying is presented as both a strategic whistle to cameramen and a bothersome human weakness that can, temporarily, destroy the illusion. “Crying is what you do when you don't understand what you're feeling,” the narrator tells us. Multiple scenes include an empty, spotlit clown who acts as a puppet for the omniscient voice overhead. It is instructed in its expressions: make jokes, target some one in the audience, “never let them know the nasty things you're really thinking about them.”
When told to target someone in the audience, the clown, of course, directs the microphone at Roberta Smith. “What is the number one characteristic of an alpha male?” Roberta, deer-in-headlights, insists that she doesn't know. “You look like you know a lot about men.” She does not. “But you're sitting right next to one.” Jerry declares, definitively: “love.” Wrong. The narrator tells us it's a smile.
Often, the characters mirror the infuriating roboticism of actual political banter. This was especially the case in dialogue from Anderson Cooper's scrutiny of Mary Landrieu following Hurricane Katrina; even a reenactment of that interview is exasperating. An elderly woman, acting as Landrieu, sits casually on her husband's lap, thanking politicians for their support, while a younger woman, a stand-in for Anderson Cooper, prods for a scrap of feeling. In the actual interview, Cooper, reporting from New Orleans, claims to have just witnessed a body get eaten by rats and demands to know when some one will take responsibility for the disaster. He searches Landrieu for a semblance of empathy, to no avail: “Do you get the anger that is out here?” “I hear you. I hear you,” the Landrieu character says, in a sleepy-eyed, smiling drawl, but she is not capable of listening. If possible, that interview is even more nauseating after Laser's performance; Landrieu really was that out of touch.
Often the audience is fully lit because we are stage, set, and props. Though they encircle performers, cameramen are omitted from the live film by tight shots of the actors, backgrounded by viewers. Because the audience is onscreen and the sound is minimal, our laughter – at first teeming, but declining steadily throughout – serves as a backdrop for the performance. Like crying, we laugh (when we see ourselves onscreen, when the clown targets Roberta Smith) because we don't fully understand what we're seeing. Though the action is taking place directly in front of us, most of us are watching the projection. Unlike the actors, we are not stand-ins.
By the final scene, the interviews, press conferences, and editorials begin to sound the same. It doesn't matter whether it's Anthony Weiner's penisgate speech or George Bush's final press conference; when one of the women asks “How is anything ever going to change?” we know it's a rhetorical question. The performance closes as the clown gestures on stage, in front of the screen, and the projection creates an endless mirror effect: we, the audience, are watching the clown, watching ourselves watching ourselves, indefinitely.
I Feel Your Pain features actors Lynn Berg, Audrey Crabtree, Ray Field, Annie Fox, Kathryn Grody, Rafael Jordan, Liz Micek, and Ryan Shams. The video was made with producer David Guinan and cinematographers Alex Hadjiloukas, Matthew Nauser and Collin Kornfeind of Polemic Media; Production Manager Brandon Polanco and costume stylist Felicia Garcia-Rivera.