We crave narrative so much we see it everywhere, from the stars to the dirt. We seek out the stories of things because stories assure us that those things really do matter. And when no story exists, no matter; our imaginations connect the dots into whatever picture or pattern we desire. And so when the affable bunch of theater misfits behind Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind declare they're going to cram 30—30!—plays into 60 minutes of over-caffeinated, adrenaline-fueled downtown entertainment, the mind exclaims, "So many stories! So little time!" When they add that the audience plays an important part in picking the order in which those plays are performed—shout out a number when you hear the prompt "Curtain"—the mind simply reels.
But two minutes is hardly enough time to get the whole story, so we're invited to connect those dots and see patterns of ourselves in the dialogue, monologue, and dance. We see ourselves failing to connect, and then goofily managing to, in the wordless dance piece "Wind Up." We see our prejudices hammed up and spelled out in "Housekeeper," a biting deconstruction of liberal biases. We see and can laugh at our stubbornness and folly in the well-played "Smoldering in the Silence of an Apology."
We see our insecurities heightened into sharp, self-conscious relief during "Do-It-Yourself," a confessional between two minority actors (Yolanda Kae Wilkinson and Desiree Burch) who make a plaything of the divide between real and fake as they discuss the six new company members, almost all of whom are white. Yes, the mind says, I recognize that kind of non-PC, self-involved talk; despite the limitations of race and gender, I recognize the jealousy and the fear of encroachment, and the need to protect what's mine. I recognize it so much that I'd like the backstory, or at least the rest of the story.
But no. They've yelled "Curtain," and it's time to move on. And move on we do.
Too Much Light is the New York imprint of an improv-short play genre mash-up that began in Chicago in 1988. It requires patrons to determine their own ticket prices with the roll of a die and promises to get audience members involved in the process. Once the hour is done, someone from the audience is asked to role the die to determine how many new plays will be added to the menu the following week. Cast members collaborate, writing and fine-tuning as many as six new plays for the next show, a feat that explains the palpable energy level in the room.
On the night I saw the show, one of the most compelling plays, "East of Eden," consisted of two actors (Justin Tolley and Sarah Levy) who speak, respectively, as the narrator of a Genesis-inspired creation story and a modern-day woman. Their back-and-forth seems like the fractured dialogue between two people trapped at opposite ends of history; the male in an impersonal tone decreeing that this is how it is, while the female intimately meanders her way through a relationship.
All the while, the actors use Scotch tape to enclose an apple that has been cut in two in a square maze of lines and restrictions. Once they were done, they stopped and looked at what they had made and saw that it was pretty good. They sat in the middle of the box and taped together the apple. What exactly did it mean? Forgiveness? Resilience? The reimagination of generations-old wounds and the mending of that original rupture?
But I didn't have time to think it out. The actors yelled "Curtain" and thankfully managed to snatch me back out of myself. Back out into the space where narratives are being flirted with and discarded, like so much Scotch tape on the floor of a black stage.