Room on Fire

"Let me take a casual peep at those slanderous gabs," says Isabel Lewis, as a short burst of jazzy music erupts and she jazzily saunters across the PS 122 stage in Lewis Forever: Freak the Room. This moment encapsulates the whole experience of the earnest, but ultimately too unpolished Freak the Room – for the Lewis siblings, every mundane task (like crossing the stage to fetch a newspaper) becomes a lively, self-indulgent ritual. Not to say that Freak the Room is pompous in any way, just that the Lewis's project seems wrought from a distinctive "twinspeak" that the rest of us are not privy to. The few short snatches of dialogue are indecipherable dream language – something about a bad newspaper review, maybe? About being appreciated as artists? These usually lead into prolonged dance numbers or, in one case, a well-choreographed fight scene.

And to my thunderstruck surprise, there is actually a scene where the Lewis kids tie silver handkerchiefs over their faces and... ahem... "freak" the room. Well, the room's furniture, anyway.

The most compelling segment of this mad revel is a live video feed interview, where Eric, who is not actually a Lewis sibling, uses a video camera to aggressively prod the others along like hostages. Since the camera is plugged into a live monitor onstage, the audience is treated to very intimate images of the somewhat stunned performers. This sequence ends with the Lewis's pre-framed on the monitor, bawling their eyes out to "I Got Life" [cq] from the hippy musical Hair. The inclusion of the Hair track at once suggests the proper context for the Lewis's undertaking – Freak the Room is a modern take on the sixties-era "Be-In." After making this connection, it is easy to enjoy the rest of the whole, frantic endeavor.

Much of the high-energy dancing and sofa-humping showcased here is very engaging, but simply goes on too long without evidence of intended direction or target reaction. When able performers dance in unvaried movements long enough for it to get boring TWICE, one simply can't help wonder if there is a purpose beyond the performers having a good time. Though admittedly more of a happening than a play, Freak the Room feels a little light on substance. There is a tenuous thread of searching for the truth throughout: in the brusque video interviews, in the need to disprove the newspapers “gabs”, and even in the sudden, bursting honesty of the drum-heavy dance numbers. Perhaps the pounding, strangely timed dances are a celebration of this continued search for truth, or maybe just a sensory escape from the fact that we might never find it. Maybe the Lewis’s are suggesting that our identities are in flux between the lies we tell the camera and those that are printed in the paper? Maybe we’re all just silver faced hump-bots desperate for connection on any level?

Regardless of the Lewis’s intent, the result looks like a dozen theatrical conceits thrown at the wall, in hopes that what sticks somehow says something profound about our collective unconscious. For all the talk of “transnationalism” and cultural unity in the promotional materials, the piece’s slurred decadence might end up alienating some audiences. There are nothing but good ideas here, but the strange excesses and illogical pacing feel as though the Lewis siblings could use an objective guiding hand rather than following their inner muses with complete abandon. Towards the end, George Jr. suggests that the show is reinvented for every performance, but it wasn't clear if he was commenting on the fleeting nature of performance art in general or if the show is literally rewritten for each performance. If he meant the latter, the show's messiness is somewhat understandable.

But as I said, all four siblings – George Jr., Isabel, Sarah, and the imposter Eric – are vigorous in their commitment to the material. Each brings a unique timbre to the proceedings, whether it’s suave or poetic. Their dynamic came together agreeably during the final portion of the evening, when they held a kind of "funeral" for the evening's performance, complete with an Allen Ginsberg poem sung as dirge by the audience.

By that point, despite its pacing and directional issues, Freak the Room’s sincere performers rub off on the audience. To the Lewis’s credit, we all sang and, on some level, lamented the end of this truly inimitable, raucous performance.

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