Keeping House

Founded after World War I as a means of creating industrial design to compliment modernist lifestyles, the Bauhaus school of design was ultimately shut down by the Nazis, who were suspicious of its modernist innovations. Yet the impact of the Bauhaus movement didn't end there. Its legacy takes center stage in Chance D. Muehleck's new play, which examines the Bauhaus movement through multimedia performance. Much like its subject matter, bauhaus the bauhaus, produced by The Nerve Tank at the Brooklyn Lyceum, is a thoughtful, well-researched project that demonstrates keen insight into contemporary life. In the tradition of the Bauhaus school, Nerve Tank's creativity compensates for the uneveness of this experimental work. As the audience files into rows of folding chairs in the raw, open space of the Lyceum, the ensemble cast, dressed in white lab coats, neon gloves and wigs, paces across the floor. Their short, staccato steps become a dominant choreographic trope of the performance, which employs both precision of movement and stylized absurdities. The company does not always strike a desired balance between discipline and goofiness; often one quality overwhelms the other. When the balance is achieved, it creates a terrific dynamic that contributes to some of the production's strongest moments, as when one performer delivers a clever House that Jack Built inspired poem ("This is a wheel that becomes a bed that...") while a second performer executes a series of movements in conjunction with the rhyme. Neither pantomime nor wholly abstracted, the choreography grants the poem a transmutable embodiment. It's a prescient dramatization of a design aesthetic which aimed to create physical forms to support modern behavior.

As the Lyceum's current resident company, Nerve Tank fully inhabits the space. Under Melanie Armer's direction, little energy is lost to the Lyceum's distant ceilings or the playing space's excess areas. In keeping with Bauhaus emphasis on streamlined design and a lack of ornamentation, stage designer Solomon Weisbard has created a single, three-tiered white structure in the back of the playing space on which performers stand and images are projected. Video by Shawn X. Duan is also, at times, projected onto the brick walls and the Lyceum floor, further inhabiting the space by creating multiple focuses of attention. Perhaps more significantly, given the theme of the production, the video points to cultural shifts from industrial to digital design. Sound designer Stephan Moore likewise plays with the contrast between digitized and industrialized ontologies through his use of musique concrète, electronic music which looks beyond traditional instruments for compositional material. In that sense, though digital rather than industrial, the sound design parallels Bauhaus ideology, which advocated the exploitation of available resources by skilled craftsmen.

Muehleck's script weaves together a lot of diverse material, with text ranging from an M.A. thesis on Bauhaus performativity to copy from an Ikea catalog. Armer keeps the mood light and the pace up so that the collage of scenes shifts easily from one to another. A central irony of bauhaus the bauhaus lies in its skilled use of postmodern playwrighting techniques (collage, pastiche, repetition, nonlinear plot) to critique a school of design synonymous with modernism. That's an interesting answer to the play's question of legacy.

For more information on The Nerve Tank and bauhaus the bauhaus, see our Off the Cuff interview with Melanie Armer here.

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