Wrestling the Demon of Art

DADAnewyork's Brunch at the Luthers, the latest work by self-described "activist playwright" Misha Shulman, is a collection of "Dadaist" vignettes that purports "to explain the Western consciousness," whatever that is. According to the press release, said consciousness is "ruled by such surrealistic influences as Bush, Bin Laden, Trump, Hurricane Katrina, and the tragic situation in Africa." Because "what leads to wars is the strict adherence to logic," Shulman hopes to combat war with a Dadaist "assault on logic." Brunch at the Luthers starts somewhat promisingly with a quartet of actors, standing before music stands, chanting nonsense-words and nonsense-phrases in monotonous harmony, fascistically conducted by a man in a wig reminiscent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence or a British barrister. This would be better were the actors not conspicuously reading their lines from highlighted pages, or were the words less pretentious. "Wrestling a demon of art--Don't!" they bark.

In another piece, three women in bureaucratic suits investigate whether blood spilled on a floor is blood or water; how it got there; whose blood, if blood, it is, and whether it matters. Perhaps the terms reference Bin Laden's "your blood is blood and our blood is water" speech. Predictably, they don't discover how the blood -- if it is blood -- was indeed spilled, because they get distracted by semantics. This is the only real insight or intelligible idea that the play offers, but it's hardly original that bureaucracy can be deployed, deliberately or accidentally, to obscure atrocity. This piece is written by Normandy Raven Sherwood, also responsible for the set and costume design. Some of the other earlier vignettes were also authored by people other than Shulman.

Once we get to the main attraction, Shulman's depiction of a brunch party at the Luther household, a sense of deja vu sets in. Mr and Mrs Luther appear very similar to the M. and Mme. Martin (get it? Martin... Luther?) of Romanian Absurdist Eugene Ionesco's masterpiece The Bald Soprano, only much less entertaining.

Mr and Mrs Luther are preparing brunch for an acquaintance, "State Congressman" Mansfield, (a biologically female "undercover feminist" in a man's suit and necktie, identified by the playwright as "a riff on Hillary Clinton"), and Mansfield's "niece or nephew," Harlot Sierra O'Toul.

Ms or Mr O'Toul may or may not be coming to brunch, and is either an "erotic dancer" or an "exotic dancer." That "erotic" entertainment often gets billed as "exotic," or foreign, and vice versa is a good point, that might have been intriguingly explored at greater depth. The arrival of some guests, bearing gift bags containing decoy ducks and decorated with Hanukkah and Christmas imagery, calls into question the religion of the Luthers, and lets the audience know that symbols are to be distrusted and identities are unstable.

As the play meanders forward, cocoa is made, rubber duckies and feathers eaten, diners start quacking like ducks (after Ionesco's humans-turned-rhinoceri) and then O'Toul appears. Like Mansfield, she is a biological woman (apparently), with the poses and voice of a cross between 1950s fictional icons Betty Rizzo and Beebo Brinker. (The) Harlot does a garish, cross-eyed, ungainly "erotic/exotic" dance on an oriental carpet, suggesting the Jazz Age's "Salome dancers" who, while the causes for World War II materialized, capitalized of Jews, Muslims, "the Orient," sexuality, homosexuality, and women. Like King Herod -- arguably another Absurdist character, given his depiction in Wilde's Salome, Mr Luther gets noticeably hot and bothered. Then his wife and the other guests exclude him from the gathering, and the apartment, and form a conga circle themselves.

All of the actors except for Kroos, playing Mr Luther, speak in stiff, wooden voices and use body language that is exaggerated but lacks the discipline and clarity of intentional Expressionist-influenced acting, such as that seen in the work of Stephen Berkoff or, here in New York, Rabbit Hole Ensemble. The blocking is nonsensical: in one scene, actors stand directly in front of others who are talking.

This "activist" play does not shed any light on how "logic" causes wars. That is a shame, because I really wanted to find out how that works. The most infamous wars, it seems, are caused by a regime's own "assault on logic." In order to keep the wholly irrational institution of race-based slavery, pre-Civil-War American politicians had to rape the logic of the European Enlightenment philosophy that informs the Declaration of Independence in order to craft a Constitution where all men are created equal, but some are counted as only three-fifths of a person.

In the pages of Mein Kampf, Hitler crafted an entire belief system based on inherently illogical principles, then ruthlessly silenced or drove out almost everyone who tried to subject it to the cold fire of logic. World War II broke out because, after a good while of this and many millions of deaths, reason needed to be restored. Lastly, the Bush administration has failed to give a consistent logical explanation for having started the present war in Iraq. This is probably because they never had one.

To sum up, Brunch at the Luthers is a piece of self-indulgent pretentious rubbish. However, if you like Dada -- or, rather, Shulman's idea of Dada -- these words should not deter you from seeing it, because reason is oppressive, and language deceptive and meaningless.

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