Before New York’s financial world caved in on itself, the most ubiquitous enemy to the city’s longtime residents was its series of aggressive redevelopment projects. Its five boroughs may have risen in stroller-friendliness over the past decade, but the family businesses and community-specific traditions that once characterized its neighborhoods have now given way to drug store chains and luxury condominiums. A collective need to resist gentrification prevails as New York’s defining cause of social activism, and consequently is reflected in art projects conceived within the city’s borders. Such is the case with redevelop (death valley), a frenzied blend of video, photography, spoken word, dance and music playing at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. The scope of the project is ambitious to the point of feeling exhausting as it attempts to use this mishmash of artistic genres to create a parallel between local redevelopment projects and the impact of ghost towns on the American psyche. In its strongest moments, redevelop (death valley) reads like a cleverly conceived museum installation, but its lack of narrative clarity does more to jumble the goals of the piece than to inspire moments of a-ha.
Five performers roam about the stage during its roughly hour-long running time, but for most of it they are literally upstaged by an assortment of hanging, translucent panels that serve as projection screens and obstruct the audience’s view. Isolating the company’s performers with a plastic wall and offering the audience a partial, distorted view is a strategic choice that appears to be designed to trigger frustration. Just as the endless construction of sterile condominiums muffles the spirit of a neighborhood, these white panels invoke our curiosity, ruthlessly control our viewpoint, and distance us from the flesh-and-blood element of the piece. The metaphor is effective, but its execution also keeps the audience at a needless distance.
While most of the video and still photography images projected onto the panels depict elements of the performance space itself, from the five dancers’ quivering legs and hands to extreme close-ups of light beams, windows and radiators, the work is also punctuated by two lengthier, pre-taped segments. An interview with a longtime Long Island City resident opens the first half of the work, and the second half in turn begins with a series of video clips, images and commentary depicting abandoned desert towns.
While the opening interview suffers from sloppy editing that makes its subject appear excessively long-winded, the second documentary segment is arguably the most affecting part of redevelop (death valley). There’s an unexpected beauty to its images of abandoned houses, stripped of everything valuable and blending, like fossils, into the landscape around them. In this segment one can’t always make out the voice of the interviewee, but as the recorded sound of a distant highway grows almost unsettlingly loud, these words lose their importance.
Perhaps the only clear arc in Rogers’s piece is the gradual removal of these obstructing screens. Its five characters occasionally shut out one another’s access to the audience by putting up additional panels, but as the piece draws to a close, they move these screens, one by one, onto a pile on the floor. As we begin to see the oblong, tile-walled room in its entirety, another memorable image is revealed: the five performers have gathered around a dinner table in the far end of the space, chatting and pouring glasses of wine underneath a yellow light. In the center of the room is a pile of unidentifiable rags, and in front of the audience a narrow beam of rain pours on an abandoned tea set. Even if one isn’t quite sure of the meaning of this visual moment, it's difficult to forget.
Although the visual and audio elements of the performance appear to be carefully orchestrated, its use of words is its most notable weakness. When the five characters speak, it’s often almost impossible to make out their words, and when one does hear them, their context is unclear. The performance also tries to make use of a variety of spoken-word recordings, including FDR’s fireside chats and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, but their meaning remains obscure and their presence only contributes to a viewer’s confusion.
It’s difficult, of course, to fault the Chocolate Factory’s artistic director Brian Rogers for his ambition, and I’m not sure that I would want to. Love them or hate them, works like redevelop (death valley) continue to challenge and expand the ways in which we perceive theater. The work itself may not always be relatable, but the artistic passion behind it certainly is.