Two characters sitting across a café table: anyone who has ever attended a short play festival or worked on partner scenes in an acting class is probably familiar with the format. Etiquette, by Anton Hampton and Silvia Mercuriali of the international Rotozaza company, is undeniably a café play. A ticket to the production requires not watching the performance, however, but enacting it. Of the many diverse offerings in The Public’s Under the Radar Festival, Etiquette perhaps most literally embodies the Festival’s name. Staged at a single table in the East Village’s bustling Veselka Café, Etiquette takes place under the radar of most of Veselka’s patrons. And though the table reserved for the production is next to a window, there is little to alert passersby to the fact that those sitting at it are engaged in anything other than typical café conversation.
A closer inspection would breed suspicion: both patrons wear headphones (separate instructions inform each participant as to what to say and do) and instead of food, the table is lined with a number of unusual miniature objects. If most café plays are staged with bare bones sets and adhere to realism, Etiquette reverses the convention. Set in a live café, the instructions that participants receive at times force them to forgo realism entirely.
Abandoning realism while in a “real” environment enhances the playfulness of the experiment. It also raises serious questions about what constitutes performance, both onstage and in daily life. How formalized need a performance be in order for it to be considered theatre?
That the characters which the production asks participants to play are specific and gendered, with exact lines and precise gestures, provides the project many of its formal elements. But if those around the performance are unaware that it is taking place, then the participants perform their roles solely for one another. Within the play, however, the characters themselves appear to perform for each other as well. In that respect alone, the project engages multiple levels of performativity – and requires participants to engage in them as well.
If everyone around the performance is indeed unaware of it – and that’s a significant if – it certainly does not mean that the participants are unaware of the public sphere of their performance. Staging the play in a setting not traditionally theatrical yet explicitly public is a key aspect of elevating the experiment to a level of theatricality, as opposed to a game of childlike make believe or simple role playing. To what extent does the presence of others affect an intimate moment?
A café is ideally suited to such an experiment in that it provides a unique balance of public and private space. The presence of uninitiated strangers is intimidating and can make participants feel self-conscious. At the same time, the strangers’ close proximity yet lack of attention has the potential to be deeply liberating, even thrilling, for the participants.
Etiquette is influenced by Godard’s 1962 film Vivre sa vie, and Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, both groundbreaking works that examine women’s struggles for agency, and familiarity with them will enhance participants’ experience of Etiquette. Yet even participants without knowledge of the source material will find aspects of the play that resonate with them. Anyone who has ever sat across from a stranger in a café – or who has sat in a café and people-watched – will recognize the situation enough to feel comfortable in it.
The only absolutely essential quality for participants to bring to the piece is a willingness to spend half an hour engaged in a quirky performance experiment. For those who are game, the project will be a delightfully unique, entertaining exercise in communication. After half an hour of asking participants to blindly follow instructions and providing them with words to say, Etiquette will leave them with a lot to talk about.