The publicity materials for (Rus)h, the new multimedia production from James Scruggs and Kristin Marting, present the project as an innovative and boundary-transgressing narrative that is facilitated by an adventurous application of technology. The production itself, however, feels more like an innovative and boundary-transgressing experiment in stage technology that is facilitated by a moderately adventurous narrative. Neither as fragmented nor as transgressive as its marketing materials might lead you to believe, (Rus)h is nevertheless an admirable and mostly successful project that highlights an exciting group of young performers and demonstrates that experiments in multidisciplinary theatre need be neither bloated and ostentatious, nor inaccessible and pretentious. Rus (Luis Vega) is feeling trapped in a once-exciting marriage that has, to his mind, become repetitive and stagnant. He and his wife Sireene (chandra thomas) spend more time talking about flirtations and sexual adventures from earlier in their relationship than they do making new memories. When Rus’s car hits and nearly kills a stranger named Sonny (Lathrop Walker), this sad but pedestrian marital crisis takes a dramatic and disturbing turn. The accident sends Sonny into a coma and Rus, out of both guilt and a strange attraction for the other man, visits him every day in the hospital. As it turns out, Sonny is a thrill-seeking masochist, addicted both to crystal meth and violent encounters. Unable to experience “pleasure” in the normative sense of the word, he may even have leapt in front of Rus’s car in order to feel something. When Sonny wakes from his coma, he sets out to “thank” Rus by drawing him into his world and awakening in him violent desires of his own.
Things spin out of control, predictably enough, though there are enough surprises along the way to keep the audience engaged. The twists and turns of the plot, however, and the specifics of Rus’s “secret desire” serve primarily as a vehicle for Scruggs’s and Martings’s innovative multidisciplinary staging. Dialogue, monologue, dance, video, and puppetry merge almost seamlessly as characters move from memory to fantasy to the present. Rus and Sireene replay their first meeting at a dance club, arguing over the details of the memory even as they remember their initial, mutual attraction. A large panoramic video screen curves around the back of the stage, sometimes providing contextual information, sometimes setting a mood with magnified images of swaying tree leaves, sometimes providing clues to the play’s structure by displaying handwritten questions for the charater. Who is writing these questions: a therapist? a reporter? the police?
Most memorably, two performers carry “video puppets,” portable video screens that serve a number of narrative and psychological functions and also become the production’s most notable display of ingenuity and technique. One moment the screens represent characters’ internal voices, close-ups of mouths shouting or whispering into the ears of the live actors. The next moment, they serve as theatrical x-ray machines, providing a glimpse of an actor/character’s body or revealing the body of a character not on stage, as if x-raying the air itself. These moments require an incredible precision on the part of the dancer-puppeteers who, without looking at the images on their screens must synchoronize the pans and zooms of the video with the movements of their arms in order to enable the illusion that the screens are revealing what is behind them rather than displaying something pre-recorded.
The virtuosity of the designers and the performers, all of whom are first-rate, is a testament to the value of Here Arts Center’s resident artist program, which allows ensembles to work together over a period of time to create new work. The actors bite into their roles with a commitment and enthusiasm that bring life to moments that might otherwise not have worked. When the characters challenge the audience to give them advice or to provide them with drugs, they do so with a longing and an intensity that makes us feel genuinely uncomfortable rather than annoyed by a device we’ve seen countless times. When the ubiquitous Qui Nguyen’s fight choregraphy begins to look awfully similar to the moves we’ve seen from him in a great many other shows, we forgive him because the actors in this case sell those moves so well.
While I have my quibbles and complaints about (Rus)h, the production as a whole held my interest and earned my admiration more than anything I’ve seen in recent months. Both more challenging and more polished than many shows with higher profiles (and higher ticket prices), (Rus)h is a welcome sign that there is still plenty of life, innovation, and bite in New York's downtown theatre scene.