Whether you're at an East Williamsburg loft party in Brooklyn or a velvet-roped mega-club in Manhattan's Meatpacking district, the best D.J.s know how to gently coax a crowd into ever-giddier heights of abandon. D.J.s are to songs and lyrics what astute librarians are to books. Their art is one that rides—that surfs—on sensibility, mood, and intuition; they are the tone painters of a vibe's pure gestalt. A great D.J. seems to have a sixth sense to mix songs smoother than a good bartender mixes drinks. The best D.J.s can weave a tapestry of sounds whose narrative arc over the course of a night transcends its individual sonic threads; the worst D.J.s, on the other hand, make you long for the random-shuffle option on your iPod.
Playwright and director Mitchell Polin's new play, Mustard, proceeds in a self-described process of "remixing" classical dramatic source material. That is, Polin "samples" the characters, phrases, themes, and textures of traditional plays, then re-dubs them, scratches them, subjects them to feedback loops and distortions, blends one into another, and creates a multitrack text that includes wholly contemporary rhythms and beats.
As a character in his play states, "Our situation as artists is that we have all this work that was done before we came along. ... I would not present things from the past, but would approach them as materials available to something else ... a collage made from various plays."
The classical text he "samples" in Mustard is that old Ibsen warhorse The Dollhouse. The sample, in this case, is the famous climax in which Nora tragically realizes her independence and walks out on Torvald. Between suspended splices of actual Ibsen dialogue and oblique allusions, Polin orchestrates a multimedia pastiche of musical and meta-theatrical vignettes.
During many scenes, characters make glib philosophical comments on the (non-)action or build up expectations for what is about to happen. Yet even though several characters repeatedly declare that "everything you are about to see has already happened," the play never quite seems to begin.
Insouciant girls in miniskirts and oversized sunglasses lounge around provocatively as if in a glossy fashion magazine. Other girls lisp gibberish nature poems or spout metaphoric nonsense about aliens and galaxies while playing magic tricks with small flashlights. All of this feels like a prelude to some promised "big event" that never materializes.
The play's high points, however, come when a live indie rock band, Tungsten74, jams out everything from 70's pop tunes like My Sharona to eerie Radiohead-like electronica. Meanwhile, a video screen in back of the stage alternately displays abstract rhythmic patterns, time-delayed double exposures of the actors' movements, and an image of the cosmos as an eyedropper's universe of writhing amoebas.
Of the cast members, Michael Burke displays the most stage presence and panache as an androgynous, leather-clad, potty-mouthed cynic who trolls the city's alleyways for sex. Unfortunately, his tirades never go anywhere—they are sterilized, self-contained exhibits in a kind of theatrical test tube. His barely concealed threat to rape the audience is never believable because we've long ago realized the play lacks the bite of real action.
Mustard is quite "experimental" in many ways, yet, like most experiments, it advances a big theory but delivers a small failure. The problem with the play is that while its goal of "de-centering" a text is an interesting—even noble—cause, the piece does not provide an alternative form of coherence to that Aristotelian chestnut about having a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At least for me, while individual lines or bits of action were enjoyable, the overall impression was murky and ill conceived.
To be fair, the press release warns, "Polin is a director who moved from happenings into theater." In fact, I wished the play retained more of the spirit of a rock concert and of happenings, instead of utilizing the standard, static theatrical division between audience and actors. If a stated goal of the play was to break down the boundaries between life and theater, the audience members needed to be a greater part of the action: they needed to stand up, rock out, move around, intermingle, break-dance, and crowd-surf. They needed to touch and be touched.
The play needed to have the spontaneity of a live D.J. mixing and scratching tracks, responding to its live audience, rousing the wallflowers to blossom. As it was, the audience members slumped in their chairs, politely watched, and timidly crept toward the door before the band finished its last song.