As a referendum on revolution, this twisty, hilarious show is a true knockout.
Most revolutions fail. And even for the ones that don’t, their victories are limited at best. And that’s because most revolutions picture an outcome that’s far too perfect to ever really exist. Or maybe it’s because a lot of revolutions spring from the minds of macho, masochistic men—drunk on the power of their ideas, their desires or just themselves.
These are just a few of the thousand or so ideas that have been put into a blender and splattered against the walls by Neo-Futurist Trevor Dawkins and the artists involved in his new show, A Story Told in Seven Fights. What begins as a look back at the Dada and Surrealist art movements soon rips itself apart like the atoms at the center of a nuclear bomb. What looks like a goofy show mixing art history with stage combat explodes into something far grander, far messier, and far and away more urgent.
Directed with equal parts care and chaos by Tony Santiago, Seven Fights begins before the audience even enters the theatre, with Dawkins and ensemble member Kendra Miller staging a playful piece of combat (the first taste of Gaby Labotka’s kickass violence design) that doubles as perhaps the ideal theatrical deployment of a cover of Kanye’s “Runaway.” Once the show properly begins, Dawkins relates his fascination with a little-known historical figure named Arthur Cravan, a wrecking-ball dervish of a man from the early 20th century who inspired Tristan Tzara and André Breton to found the Dada and Surrealist art movements, respectively.
Cravan married a brilliant artist and writer, Mina Loy, and he once fought Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Dawkins proclaims that he is interested in revolutions, and that he’s interested in starting a revolution right now. He says he wants to know why revolutions fail. There’s a lot of talk about punching people in the face. It’s all very Neo-Futurist, with a worryingly large helping of Fight Club on top.
All of this goes out the window almost immediately. The other cast members aren’t interested in playing their assigned roles, nor are they particularly interested in telling the story Dawkins wants to tell. The most enthusiastic participant is an “audience member” (actually Neo-Futurist artistic associate Jen Ellison) who has such a grade-A anarchistic weirdo vibe that she absolutely has to play Tristan Tzara.
(The entire ensemble is fantastic, but Ellison might just be first among equals here. There’s a scene later in the show wherein she drops the act and appears as herself, and her utterly winning normalcy is the bright light that casts the rest of the intensely strange performances in perfect, sharp relief.)
As Dawkins “loses control” of the seven fights, the show’s premise splinters and refracts the perspectives of the individual ensemble members. There are poems, tangents, conversations and personal stories about being both an artist and activist of color. And as the other perspectives proliferate and subsume the original piece, Dawkins’s pugilistic desire for “revolution” is reframed as the same latent misogyny and urge for violence that drives not only the instigators of revolutions, but the people that Dawkins himself wants to revolt against. The Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind incident is repeatedly referenced. The verdict? Fuck founders.
At 90 minutes, the show packs an incredible amount in and only occasionally does it threaten to spin off its axis entirely. Santiago and Dawkins manage to keep all the plates in the air—excepting the ones they gleefully grab and smash on purpose. The show even comes by its wokeness honestly, with cast members of color interrogating their inclusion in the piece, Dawkins’s motives behind casting them and which groups the show has failed to include. In the end, it arrives at the only conclusion that a properly woke show can come to: that it isn’t nearly woke enough.
Oh, and, in case this wasn’t clear—in case you weren’t up on the Neo-Futurist aesthetic in general—the show is funny. Uncontrollable-laughing funny. On paper Seven Fights may sound like, well, like a show preoccupied with lofty ideas and World War I–era European art movements. Which it is. But in true Neo-Futurist fashion, the seriousness with which Seven Fights treats its subject matter doesn’t extend to how it treats itself. Revolutions take themselves incredibly seriously. Maybe that’s one reason so many fail.
The Neo-Futurists. Created by Trevor Dawkins. Directed by Tony Santiago. With Dawkins, Jen Ellison, Rasell Holt, Arti Ishak, TJ Medel, Kendra Miller, Stephanie Shum, Jeff Trainor. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.