Dead Behind These Eyes: In brief
Sister Sylvester's performance piece, performed immersively at East Village karaoke bar Sing Sing, melds the 1956 John Osborne drama Look Back in Anger with spoken pop lyrics and video footage of protests. Kathryn Hamilton directs.
Dead Behind These Eyes: Theater review by Adam Feldman
You’re in a private room in the basement of an East Village karaoke bar, with about a dozen other people, three of whom are chatting you up—friendly, for the most part, but with a bitter edge. Over the next 90 minutes or so, they sing a few songs, don cute costumes and toss out lines of dialogue that reflect their disenchantment with each other and the world, punctuated occasionally by video footage of hot-button issues (Ferguson, Gaza). This is Dead Behind These Eyes, a high-concept, low-budget exercise in immersive, site-specific, interactive theater. That approach has exploded in lavish works like Sleep No More and Queen of the Night, and Sister Sylvester’s piece (which costs just $18) is an attempt at a homemade Molotov cocktail. Although you may admire the enthusiasm with which it is thrown, you’ll also notice that it fails to detonate.
Part of the difficulty lies with the text, which is drawn from the nastily funny 1956 drama Look Back in Anger, John Osborne’s depiction of English anomie in the wake of the two World Wars. The three actors—Daniel Kublick, Lori Parquet and Brandt Adams—do their best to sell it, spitting out lines to each other and members of the audience. But the dialogue, key snatches of which are repeated often, is too stagey for so intimate a setting; it undermines the loose, contemporary vibe that Kathryn Hamilton’s production seems to aspire to. And the use of karaoke songs is mostly on-the-nose: An Osborne line about how it’s “pretty dreary living in the American age” is echoed by “Born in the U.S.A.”; a line about wanting “to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out ‘Hallelujah!’” is followed by a plaintive cover of Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Toward the end of the piece, the actors leave the room and return dressed in furry, hooded animal onesies—again inspired, literalistically, by lines in the text—which perks things up. (It’s probably not every day that you see a woman dressed as a flying squirrel perform a slow, grinding lap dance on a man dressed as a mouse, while another man, dressed as a bear, intones the lyrics of Prince’s “Darling Nikki.”)
Dead Behind These Eyes is enjoyable as a scrappy downtown-theater adventure; I had a good time, and even sang a number. But the piece lacks shape, a flaw exacerbated by its lax approach to audience participation. On the night I attended, at least, the small crowd seemed out of control: talking back continually, chatting with one another other, getting up throughout the show for drinks and bathroom breaks. The company’s apparently serious intentions could not get much traction amid this liveliness. The show kind of hangs there, amusing but slack, a flying-squirrel outfit in a second-hand store.—Theater review by Adam Feldman
THE BOTTOM LINE Tunes can’t carry this inchoate riff on Osborne.
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