Built for Collapse’s Danger Signals, written by Nina Segal and directed by Sanaz Ghajar, flips back and forth between 2018, 1935 and 1847 to explore “lobotomies, traumatic brain injuries and western culture’s desire to control and colonize,” according to the promotional material for this strange, difficult piece.
The first narration concerns a present-day woman who is getting ready to deliver a lecture on the brain. Performed by Jessica Almasy, it includes much minute detail about the experience—down to the 14 steps that separate the woman from where she stands and the podium.
Next, another narrator (Eva Jaunzemis) enters: it’s now 1935, when John Fulton, a British scientist, conducts seminal experiments on chimpanzees—specifically, two called Becky and Lucy—to explore the brain. Dressed in a furry vest, the kind that is presently chic for women wanting to be fashionable, and white fuzzy half-slippers (costumes by Karen Boyer), Eva is meant to be both narrator and chimpanzee. Or so it seems. Neither woman has any characterization. They are simply narrators.
The atmosphere changes when Robert M. Johanson enters as Sir John Franklin, a British sea captain. In full costume and characterization, he is like a breath of fresh air. He climbs up designer Dave Tennant’s rough-hewn stack of boxes assembled far to the side of the stage. This feeling of isolation wonderfully captures the demise of the sea captain whose boat was fatally caught in ice near the Canadian arctic in 1847.
As the play progresses, it veers off into a feminist discourse on the power and privilege of men and deconstructs text, intention and characterization. We are told that men dominate history, and that, coincidentally, many men are named John (such as the two in the play—Fulton and Franklin, both historical figures). It’s not a new message, and the strong feminist discourse backfires because Johanson not only plays the best-conceived roles, which are male, but he is also a terrific actor. When he switches from Franklin the explorer to Fulton the scientist, an interesting idea is thrown into the mix. Like a game show host, he announces into a microphone: “I’m a man. I’m a white man. It’s a time when we don’t talk about privilege.” This is one of the more provocative moments in the play, because it asks the question: what if a man were to reflect on his privilege throughout history?
Unfortunately, the answer is never pursued. When the women shunt him off the stage, instead of the feeling that history is finally correcting itself, there is a sense of loss. In the final stretch, Almasy, with darting eyes and a swell of tears, delivers a long monologue and again switches gears to focus on the brain and ice. She tells the audience that the title of this lecture is: “What You Thought Once Was, Is No Longer.”
“Maybe I should have said that at the beginning,” she says. “But I’m not sure I believe in linear narrative anymore. The information comes to us as it is discovered, uncovered. Revealed, as the glacier melts or evaporates, burns or falls away.” But, given the predominant nonlinear narrative, the long monologue leaves the impression that Danger Signals might be more effectively structured another way.
Many theater makers examine how far they can push the experimental envelope. Some, such as the Wooster Group, Robert Maxwell, and Peter Brook, are able to deconstruct all facets of the theatrical experience as they go along, often descending into chaos. The question remains whether Built for Collapse can too. Right now, its theatrical experience has the bite of a Chihuahua rather than a pit bull.
Built for Collapse’s Danger Signals runs through May 19 at the New Ohio Theatre, (154 Christopher St. between Greenwich and Washington streets). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 7 p.m. Sundays at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (212) 352-3101. Or visit NewohioTheatre.org.