Named an “Off-Off Broadway Innovator to Watch” by Time Out New York, Brooklyn-based 31 Down continues to strengthen its individual brand of cross media performance with Here At Home, now playing at the intimate and charming non-profit Bushwick Starr. Here At Home strives to be both a real and surreal portrait of how war affects friends and families at home, but the unfocused script by Eric Bland is overshadowed by the show’s dazzling sound and video design.
The show begins provocatively enough. Act One takes place in Anytown, USA behind a Wal-Mart on what can best be described as “the smoking block.” Megastore employees Holly (a stone-faced Hollis Witherspoon) and Frank (an effusively passionate D.J. Mendel) are on break, contemplating their ennui in a scene that resembles a mumblecore update of Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia.
Holly’s soldier boyfriend is stationed overseas and has been sending increasingly disturbing messages back home. Ex-veteran Frank served in the Middle East and knows the atrocities of war firsthand. References to Socrates and Kant are dropped nonchalantly into their conversation to accentuate the existential crises of the characters, although their discontent comes off more like boredom than internal pain. Wherehere their speeches seem disaffected and disinterested, however, the visuals that surround them are anything but.
During the opening voiceover, silhouettes are scratched away behind Holly’s face on the stage’s backdrop. Later, Holly and Frank are synchronized with what I can only describe as their own “pixel shadows.” And in the final scene of Act One, a green horizontal laser beam slowly scans up and down Holly’s body, then transforms into a wide white swath.
In addition to these arresting visuals, at certain points in Act One the theater plunges into darkness and a throbbing, pulsing soundscape takes over. The exploding sounds of war emanate from all directions, creating a palpable sense of fear and panic. It’s a trippy, visceral feeling reverberated in your seat and in the seat of your pants.
Act Two squanders this disturbing and unsettling mood. In a confusing fantasy section more misbegotten than misogynistic, Frank and his loutish friend Mike (energetically played by the sound and video designer Eric Holsopple) traipse through a corpse-filled battlefield dressed as women. Or are they actually supposed to be women? The play then ends with a whimper as opposed to a bang with a diatribe from Frank who seems to be speaking in the voice of Holly’s boyfriend Matt (played by the show’s writer Eric Bland), who appears onstage but does not utter a word.
31 Down co-founders Holsopple and Shannon Sindelar (who directed Here At Home) are veterans of such groundbreaking contemporary companies as Nature Theater of Oklahoma, The Wooster Group, and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater of Richard Foreman. Their recent successes including Red Over Red and The Assembler Dilator have garnered critical acclaim and made them a buzz-worthy group to watch. Meant to build on that reputation, Here At Home unfortunately never ascends to the emotional heights of its visual and aural sensations.