It has its way of sucking you in. Starts off in a café, fun little chat with a friend over coffee, why not? Then out into the streets of the East Village, a spring stroll to get hooked up with some good times. But then it starts getting gradually heavier, more uncomfortable, with nasty revelations about your friend coming one after the next, until you’re not sure whether to walk away when she looks you in the eye and asks if you understand her. But the search for heroin continues. Street Limbo Blues suggests that it doesn’t take a particular type of person to become a junkie. Or, as director Taurie Kinoshita writes in the program, “Addiction is a sickness, not a choice.” It all sounds a bit cliché. We’ve been through this lesson in high school, we’ve seen it on TV and read it in the newspapers. We get it. But when has this issue ever made a demand for you to face it, and the way it is treated in this country? The Hawaiian based Cruel Theatre forces its audience to confront this major societal question, through use of some of the ideas of the twentieth century’s greatest theatrical minds.
In Artaudian fashion, the interaction between the performers and their audience is direct. Your best friend (if you’re as lucky as I was you’ll get Brazilian beauty Juju - a lively, convincing performance by Nancy Valeria Rendal) walks in to find you in Café Pick Me Up on Ave. A. She speaks to you about herself, her problems, and then leads you out to find your fix for the night. On this depressing adventure you’ll meet a drug dealer or two and a crew of young junkies. You’ll cringe as your best friend uses her body to try and hook up some angel dust. But, ultimately, the tone of the evening is up to each spectator. Building on Augusto Boal’s concept of the Spect-actor, the actors are trained to play with whatever they get from their intimate audience. This way, each performance (the play lasts one hour and is performed several times every evening to one to three audience members at a time) is guaranteed to be different. Artaud’s disgust with theatre that is dead before the curtain even opens is relieved.
As may be appropriate for a play about drug addiction, it begins fun and quickly goes downhill. The politics of the piece remain unclear until after it is over, when the spect-actors are handed their program. If they are moved enough to read the director’s “Diatribe on the Drug War” then their political conception about it may be challenged. Otherwise, they are likely to leave with the same denial-based distaste for junkies with which they walked into the café. The strongest moment of my evening came on the subway on the way home, when I found out from the program that sixty-eight percent of all crimes committed in the US are drug-related. More than two-thirds of our corrupt privatized prison system thrives on an un-winnable war, one which Kinoshita believes could be fought much more successfully through legalization. Perhaps there is a wiser way to spend the enormous amounts of money that go from our pockets to the prison lords of this country.
The Cruel Theatre lives up to its name, and provides a difficult experience which is likely to sit in your stomach or dreams for some time after. In that sense, their exciting theatricality works to do what they set out to do, and there is much to be learned from their play with the under-used theatrical ideas of the company’s three main influences, Artaud, Boal and Grotowski. Perhaps, if the play itself didn't make you want to get out of there as soon as possible, the political message would have come across more clearly as well. Nonetheless, this is a type of theater that audiences will find hard to ignore, and most likely they will find themselves engaging in the questions the play raises.