Theater review by Helen Shaw. Various locations. Created by Aaron Landsman, Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay. 2hrs. One intermission.
Even in these latter days of American dreaminess, a sweet glamour hangs over the idea of city governance. It seems, in theory at least, to be a place where pure citizenship meets the needs of its community; in my more romantic moments, I picture us all, like the Roman citizens of old, taking our turn at doling out grain and making sure the parks are free of Goths. The reality, of course, is grayer: bureaucracy and paperwork and dull meetings and petty bossiness. But much of the participatory City Council Meeting (conceived by Aaron Landsman and co-created by Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay) retains this idealistic haze by turning the performance into a game, played almost exclusively by the audience.
After arriving (I saw the piece in a Soho high school’s appropriately dreary auditorium), theatergoers are divided into four categories: speakers, council members, supporters and bystanders. The bystanders (the cowardly among us) go into the hall while preparations ensue. We return to a scripted performance—audience volunteers reading actual dialogue from other city council meetings, speakers approaching a lectern to advocate for cleaner streets, their supporters standing up in silent assent.
Several jokes are operating here. Techno wizard Findlay creates a set that seems not to be a set, the proceedings broadcast on two televisions with all the absurd gravitas of local cable. The more our fellows take their roles seriously, nodding gravely as the staff preps them, the sillier the whole process seems.
Landsman and company have chosen much of their documentary material wisely, looking for administrators at their wryest (a departing commissioner calls herself the Debutante of Debris) or peppering the proceedings with sudden allegations of graft or a dramatic display by an outraged community member. Less successful is the evening’s second section, a half-hour epilogue made especially for New York audiences. This tacked-on sequence, which steers abruptly into a meditation on multiple-choice tests, takes a piece interested in boredom (a video cue tells us: “Be ready to be bored. Be ready to watch a kind of irrelevant, antsy unfolding around you that wonders if it's even worth it”) and moves one ill-advised step into the actually taxing.
A new wind is blowing in participatory art these days, a freshening breeze that started, I’m guessing, with U.S. artists seeing the work of European troupes such as Rotozaza, Gob Squad and Rimini Protokoll. More artists are also drawing on the long history of art as social practice: At its apotheosis, Augusto Boal created Legislative Theater, a form that actually made policy in the 1990s in Brazil. And while it isn’t quite the heady entertainment of a Gob Squad piece (nor yet do we get to make any real legislation), City Council Meeting is a chance to see the common-man-as-performer employed by some of our strongest experimental artists.
More and more we see theater makers interested in the nonactor actor (Richard Maxwell’s oeuvre, the currently running 600 Highwaymen piece Everyone Was Chanting Your Name), but Catlett, Landsman and Findlay have a reason for this deliberately awkward aesthetic. In fact, there’s a wonderful seed of aggression buried deep in the tissue of City Council Meeting. The work deliberately lets us experience boredom, but only in an inverse relationship to how willing we are to get involved. Bystanders, beware.—Helen Shaw