There's some interesting but hard to describe theater going on with the 30 Neo-Futurist plays from Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which the Contemporary Theater Company is putting on in South Kingstown through July 23.
Thirty "plays" in 60 minute. Each one over quickly, however satisfying or puzzling, before you hear "Curtain!" and the next one begins with "Go!"
Some of their titles give advance notice, such as "Chop off My Head and Two Grow Back" and "High Comedy/Low Comedy." Others could be anything, such as "Story #423" and "Pretzel, Pretzel." Dada, surrealist, and absurdist elements are welcome, which deepens the grab bag.
Nine actors from an ensemble of 14 perform each night. Thirty numbers are clothespinned to a line running above the stage, plucked down when the audience shouts out the next choice. On a shelf in the back are props such as a KFC bucket, the Yellow Pages, and a two-headed dragon, which can be grabbed for a visual aid.
Created by Greg Allen and drawn from a slew of Neo-Futurist sketches designed for it, this production is directed by Ryan Hartigan with additional directorial credit going to Shawn Fennell, stage manager Sarah Pease-Kerr, and Christopher Simpson, the theater's artistic director.
A bit of background. First, the Futurists came about in Italy a few years before the first World War as a social and artistic movement, sometimes violent, that emphasized technology, youth, and forward-looking trends. In 1988, the Neo-Futurists were founded in Chicago by Greg Allen, and Too Much Light was their first production. For their first few years, endless variations under that title were all they presented (they still perform it weekly in Chicago). Allen said he got the title from hearing about an autistic child who would break light bulbs and say, "Too much light makes the baby go blind." That's not in the tradition that got The Tempest its name, but times do change.
We aren't the audiences of ancient Greece, who could involve themselves emotionally in day-long plays because they believed in the gods that were being referred to or depicted. Subsequent theater tricks to pull us into performances have included literally doing so, recruiting audience members like clowns do in circuses, and the mid-20th-century Living Theatre, which would sometimes run up and down the aisles and scream into people's faces.
The Neo-Futurists wanted a theater that would break down the fourth wall by eliminating any "suspension of disbelief" and any notion of illusion. The actors played themselves. Addressing the audience was fine. Spontaneity and improvisational elements made each performance unique.
On the night I saw Too Much Light, the routines ran the gamut, success-wise, but with many more hits than misses. After all, there's plenty of audience goodwill wiggle room when so much is being created on the run. It's like watching a talented acting class going through inventive exercises.
Things got off to a good start with "Déjà Vu," which allowed the audience intro to be repeated, a straightforward recital becoming funny purely from being re-contextualized. Sexualizing is always a good way to get attention, whether in a TV commercial or a stage sketch. "Build-Up of Sexual Mention" started out lamely, with actors gathering and growing unconvincingly lubricious, but it got funny when a turn-off anecdote was recounted.