Looking for Paul: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Tension between the interesting and the repellant vibrates at the core of Looking for Paul, the Dutch-Flemish group Wunderbaum's comic work about artistic responsibility, silliness and shock. Unfortunately, there is slackness at that core too. Wunderbaum pretends to have been caught short without a show (“It's New York Live Arts! We're in the brochure!”), but as can often happen, the pretense of “poor quality” becomes actual dullness, and despite flashes of metatheatrical naughtiness, Paul only occasionally rewards your search.
The concept is simple: A Rotterdam resident, Inez van Dam, is enraged by a public art work plunked outside her window; after learning of her plight, Wunderbaum decides to use it as the basis for a commissioned play they must create in “only three weeks” in Los Angeles.
First Van Dam gives us a slideshow tour of Rotterdam—including the (real) offending sculpture, which is pop-ironist Paul McCarthy's work Santa Claus, commonly and descriptively referred to as Butt Plug Gnome. Then five performers sit and read their emails, which purportedly track the development of their rehearsals and efforts to stalk the L.A.-dwelling McCarthy, while also referencing the art scene, ego battles, concerns about Holland's liberalizing arts sector and, as the opening day grows closer, the group's desperate, terrible ideas. In its third act, Paul turns to its namesake and becomes an imitation McCarthy work itself, a Rabelaisian orgy full of nudity and food stuffs and liberally distributed (faux) feces. Some people laughed uproariously at this; some left in a huff. (Poor Van Dam, we think; imagine having a McCarthy outside your window forever if this is what it's like for eight minutes.)
Even apart from this final haybale-sodomizing, ketchup-smeared scene, there are notes of disruption throughout: Certain of the show's givens are lies; Inez, for instance, is Wunderbaum's own Maartje Remmers, and that long central sequence is a scripted epistolary play. It may be that even the piece's dullness is deliberately transgressive, since Wunderbaum has made something irritating about work that's irritating, and then asked us to think about the process of funding it. A typical audience at New York Live Arts will naturally support public monies going to art—so the group takes pleasure in showing us the limit of our piety. Our own pleasure might be heightened if the fakery were more convincing. Shock, after all, is one of the most delicate emotions. Once we notice how desperately the piece wants to offend us, we've already been given the weapons to resist.—Helen Shaw
New York Live Arts (Off-Off Broadway). Performed and created by Wunderbaum. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.