Review: In Carl Hancock Rux’s ‘Vs.,’ the Jury Is Out
Since the start of the pandemic, US courts have moved millions of hearings online, a development known as “virtual justice”. Carl Hancock Rux’s Elliptical Vs adapt virtual justice to virtual theater. In this court, the crime remains anonymous and the identity of the accused a mystery. The interrogator? It would be you. Or at least, a silhouette of you, with a slight technological magic layering someone else’s deep voice over your blackened outline. Either way, choose your Zoom background carefully.
At the top of “Vs.”, a digital experiment carried out by Mallory Catlett and produced by Mabou Mines, a clerk gathers his participants in an online room. A man (David Thomson) is called as a witness. A witness of what? The interrogator – the role is divided, seemingly at random, among members of the audience – asks only two questions: whether the witness would like a drink and whether the witness was born in November. The witness responds to everyone with contempt, questioning the values and taste of the court. Here is part of his answer on the question of the date of birth: “Not if we are to consider an opposition to phallogocentrism and the hegemonic ideals contained in the patriarchal culture uniting theory and fantasy, calling into question such a discourse within the framework of” a constitution dynamited by law ”. Too bad the stenographer.
After this first sequence, the interrogation is repeated three times, with different members of the audience as the interrogator and other performers – Becca Blackwell, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Perry Yung – playing the role of witnesses. The dialogue remains largely the same, with some variations, as if it were four musicians, each playing solo to the same tune. Details never get more precise.
An enigmatic trial pursuing an unnamed crime will of course recall the works of Franz Kafka. Although “Vs”. is more of an upside down Kafka, with witnesses disdaining the authority of the tribunal. “This is your court,” everyone said. “You do as you want. I’m not in it. I’ve never been.” The court seems confused. Me too, if I’m honest.
Rux, a breathtakingly inventive multimedia artist, made an exciting entry about 20 years ago with “Talk,” an impressionistic one-piece jigsaw puzzle box about art, race, memory and culture. power. “Talk” took the form of a round table, inhabiting and deconstructing its rituals. So there was reason to hope that “Vs”. would bring the same ingenuity to a Zoom courtroom. But the show only fits into the midrange at a glance, mostly through manipulation of the speaker view and camera power. He did not fully take into account the types of narratives, images and speeches that successfully inhabit this space. Such a dense text, delivered by performers seen from the chest, face and body inundated with visual effects, suffers without the mutual entanglement of actors and audiences both present in the same space. Via an online platform, my ability to absorb and analyze language seemed to recede with each repetition. The engagement was virtual, not real.
I take no pride in this inattention. It can be some sort of ugly privilege. Because if your life, your body, or your lived experience was really at stake, you wouldn’t have the luxury of distraction. But the abstraction of “Vs”. has a cushioning effect. In that Zoom window my face was blank, I didn’t feel particularly responsible or involved, just worried about whether a restlessness (I’m a die-hard restless) would disturb the illusion.
Even as live performances return, I can’t wait for theater artists to experiment with digital tools, discover new possibilities and new transmedia forms. Nonetheless, “Vs.” looks like an overturned trial.
Until August 8; maboumines.org. Duration: 55 minutes.
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