Sound Designed

Describing the various elements that serve as aural, visual, thematic, and narrative layers of Radiohole's Fluke doesn't come close to conveying the experience of watching the show. A fragmented, surrealist riff on Moby-Dick, this piece is less about great whales and existential crises than the explosive energy, theatrical ingenuity, and collaborative spirit of Radiohole's work. The result is a welcome shot of adrenaline into the heart of New York's avant-garde theater. An image of swirling bubbles is projected onto an upstage screen. What sounds like two separate recordings of bubbling water—one light and constant, one deeper and more sporadic—moves through the theater's powerful speaker system, reinforcing the idea that the show takes place on and under the water. Adding another level to the soundscape, and slyly complicating the distinction between live and recorded performance, are the lamps lining the walls. They are submerged in fixtures that are filled with colored water, gurgling and bubbling with a sonic texture that is more "present" than the recordings.

Four actors—three (Eric Dyer, Erin Douglass, and Maggie Hoffman) onstage and one (Scott Halvorsen Gillette) broadcast onto a video monitor suspended over a corner of the proscenium—act out a variety of monologues, dialogues, and physical scenarios. Their voices are almost always amplified, so that the voices of the actors onstage have the same quality as the disembodied Gillette. The voices are usually assigned individual speakers, however, so they come from the general direction of the actors and provide spatial orientation.

One radically, and intentionally, disorienting use of sound is made possible by a remarkable device called an Audio Spotlight. Designed for use in convention centers and other large, multi-exhibit environments, this flat, round speaker projects sound in a narrow field so that only those in front of it can hear it. Radiohole has mounted the Spotlight above the stage and set it in a motorized pattern that sweeps the audience. Segments of Fluke are divided by whispered passages of text consisting mostly of latitudes and longitudes; the whispered voice sounds as if it is moving through the auditorium.

The effect sent a chill down my spine a couple of times, as a word or phrase seemed to be whispered in my ear, but mostly it gave me a geeky, gadget-lover's thrill. Most significant, perhaps, are its implications for future experiments. Theater is often described as an inherently communal experience, but this idea is provocatively subverted if different audience members can be made to hear different things at any given time.

Roughly halfway through the performance, the actors sit in a row, close their eyes, and paint new "eyes" on their eyelids. After this, they perform most of the show with their eyes closed. Because we are witness to the application of the "eyes," the illusion is funnier and creepier. We see that the characters can "see," but know that the actors cannot. In some of the show's best moments, these crudely cartoonish "eyes" are unsettlingly convincing.

While most of the show is relatively meditative (if absurdist and surreal) in tone, two or three segments shatter the atmosphere with a rock-concert energy. Distorted guitars blast almost too loudly over the speakers while actors swing across the stage on suspended ropes or hunt for whales with golf balls instead of harpoons.

The show has no single director or designer; instead, the company members seem to have made every decision collaboratively, resulting in a radically democratized aesthetic that stands in marked contrast to the auteurist, guru-driven work of most avant-garde performances. Similarly, the sound, lights, and projections are controlled by the actors onstage. Much of the spectacle of Radiohole's work is watching the performers create every aspect of the piece. While a number of topical asides are sprinkled throughout the text, this hyper-saturated brand of collaboration is the show's most political statement.

Fluke also incorporates a fair amount of lowbrow humor alongside its highbrow literary and philosophical references. Other laughs come not so much from actual jokes as from delightfully absurd images and actions. The subject of the text seems to be alienation, disaffection, and despair. Because the performers are already making fun of themselves on some level, they are able to defuse any potential charge of pretentiousness. This might be viewed as something of a cynical defense strategy, but the show never feels cynical.

What seems to motivate all of the disparate elements and devices is Radiohole's fierce love for and dedication to its work. Yes, the contemporary world is exhausting, and yes, "meaning" is as elusive as Ahab's white whale. But the inexplicable optimism invoked in the show's final monologue is made possible by the fact that four very smart adults can still entertain themselves and their audience by getting really loud and playing with toys. Free beer, toy fish, and a little noise go a long way toward making a gloomy world seem a little brighter.

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