In the moments before The Neo-Futurists’ new work (Un)afraid began, I was feeling pretty anxious. My anxiety was due to two words I dread to see connected to a theater piece I’m attending: audience participation. While I love the idea of involving and implicating audience members in productions, the possibility of actually being involved myself gives me hives. But, nevertheless, I went, and I’m glad I did. (Un)afraid has no plot to speak of. Rather, it feels more like a conversation: a wacky, fast-paced conversation with many props, masks and flurries of activity. The fantastic performers, Jill Beckman, Cara Francis, Ricardo Gamboa, and Daniel McCoy, who together wrote the show, employ a slew of performance techniques and styles, moving seamlessly from performative camp to intimate chatter. The discourse of the piece centers around fear, what we fear, why we fear, and what our shared fears say of our world today. The perspective is sharp and witty, at times grim and troubled, but not without bits of hope, glimmers of possibility.
When we arrive at the theater, we are given the option of sitting on the floor or in chairs in the back. Without fully understanding the consequences of our choice, my friend and I choose to sit on the floor. We realize too late that this choice makes us fair game. At various points we are pulled onstage to pose, dance, run, and speak with the actors. They also join us in the audience, at one point donning clown masks and offering flasks of whiskey (which I gratefully imbibe).
Between these moments of audience interaction are invidiual performances by each of the actors in turn. (Un)afraid is different each night: the exact pieces performed are determined by a “spirit,” with whom the performers chat through use of an ouiji board. On the night I attend, they call upon ghost-story writer M.R. James (more on him here: <a href= http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._R._James wikipedia.com ). At four points in the show, they ask the spirit to choose a performer to perform the piece they have prepared for that point in the show. The chosen actor then tells a story, performs a monologue, or faces one of his or her own major fears head on. On my night, Cara Francis took a shot of cockroach-infused liquor, and Daniel McCoy attempted to eat a food he hates – a tomato. (Cara succeeded, but Daniel failed, vomitting into a trashcan two bites in.) All of the pieces are connected to greater personal issues: for Cara, a memory of unwanted penetration, and for Daniel, others’ disgust at his life as a gay man.
I love these pieces. They are intelligent, immediate and as truthful as an actor can get. There is something heroic about them: the actors take on something they fear and try to conquer it. They’re hopeful, productive, genuine. They feel like gifts.
In general, I am not sure what I think of the forced audience participation that happens throughout (Un)afraid. However, at several points, instead of pulling us on stage, the performers extend an open invitation, and we must choose whether to act or remain in our seats. These moments are fascinating.
One such moment occurs near the end of the play. Before it, Jill Beckman delivers a monologue about her fear of decision-making, which includes a (partially) colored pie chart that outlines what she would most like to be doing at any given moment (87% of the time, she’d prefer to be in bed, sleeping). The monologue has the feeling of a confessional: Jill is honest and vulnerable. It’s one of those exciting occasions where an artist taps into some experience that is specific to this moment in time: in this case, the overwhelming desire to do nothing in the face of the innumerable, frenzied choices and challenges that await us each day.
After her monologue about inaction is complete, Jill asks us to choose whether or not to act. She turns on a television, which is playing a montage of pain: dead bodies, bits of war and the like. Laying a remote down centerstage, she exits. Though Jill never tells us explicitly that someone needs to pick up the remote and turn the TV off to end the scene, it is implied. The air is tense: I wonder who will stand, and when? Should I do it? Am I sure it’s what we’re supposed to do? What if I’m wrong?
I am struck by the power of this implicit invitation, how unsure I am of what will happen, how I am forced to decide whether to act or wait for someone else.
I hesitate. I remain still.
The woman sitting next to me stands, picks up the remote, and turns the television off.
(Un)afraid is entertaining, challenging, strange and smart. I say go, brave the front seats, and accept the whiskey.