Review: What's Goin' On? by Generic Ensemble Company
by Michael Meigs
"Am I good?"
It's easy and reassuring to divide all that we see and experience into Manichean opposites. That's the sort of teaching that we encounter from very early in life: This is good. That is bad.
But later, as we begin to understand that the world's a far more complicated place, those distinctions are harder to draw. Male; female. Black; white. Work; play. Sincere; phony. Optimism; pessimism. Capitalism; socialism. Rich; poor. Liberated; oppressed. Truth; lies. Aren't they all points along graduated scales, rather than irrevocable opposites? And, for good measure maybe stir in: commercial pop art; spontaneously gifted personal art. (These performances were partly funded by an IndieGoGo appeal that raised $2243, including my own modest contribution.)
What's Goin' On? by kt shorb's sweet tight band of vibrant self-styled misfits touches on all of those aspects in a rambling and unpredictable sequence of scenes that take place all over the Vortex Repertory on east Manor Road. It's not anarchy-- not in the least -- for the modules are tightly defined. Following an opening talk by shorb and a skit and song in the theatre, the company invites the audience along through the casual non-participating crowds at the popular Butterfly Bar and by Patrizi's Italian food truck in the yard. Bubbles of performance spring up hither and yon, trailed by audience members who wear armbands color-coded for their chosen levels of interaction (green for all the way, yellow for 'ask me first,' red for 'leave me alone, I'm just watching').
The mix of performance, audience and general clientele creates some serendipitous moments. My favorite was the sight of a picnic table of immaculately made-up young women, surely UT sorority sisters, peering in astonishment at the passing cast with its remarkably exotic variety of costumes, body decorations and somatotypes, enticing us about the Vortex yard.
The company took Brecht's The Good Person of Sezchuan as its point of departure more than a year ago when the members began to elaborate this lively interactive piece, but Brecht's fable of the Chinese prostitute Shen Te was left far behind. Themes of polarities are vivid in the GenEnCo derivation. It focuses far more on questions of personal identity than upon themes of economics or exploitation.
Brecht's Shen Te disguised herself as an alter ego, her fictitious male cousin Shui Tah, and got into a world of trouble only half-resolved by the end of the play with the appearance of various gods. GenEnCo players Smalls McCoy and James McMaster open What's Goin' On? with that troubling question, much repeated, of "Are you good?" As Bek and Burn they challenge one another, invite one another, appear and then retreat; they're separate and yet joined, not AC and/or DC, but together they're vibrant particles of light.
Others of the company join them in skit and song, beginning to reveal their own identities, imagined and developed during the months of elaboration of this piece. Two gods are with us from the first: Morgan Robyn Collado as O the bombastic earth mother/father and Wendy Vastine as Triskelion, a demi-urge given to rant and bird shrieks. Olivia Jimenez is Red, a water-seller and commentator, a sort of Virgil to our explorations of this complicated play-world. Kannou as Sol and Saray de Jesus Rosales as Dom inhabit this domain as mortals and seekers. Costumes by Alisha Adelman for this new full staging are colorful and imaginative, very much in line with the fantastical imaginings of the Vortex's own Ethos resident company.
Each player has a domain out in the Vortex yard for set pieces staged before the opening and later in intervals titled Life Stories, A Word from Our Sponsors, Bizarre Bazaar, and Walk with Me. In between are ensemble pieces.
Siren Song is a writhing gymnastic mystic poem staged on the floor of the Vortex's little glass house, with audience seated close about the piled company. It's a tale of ecstatic dawn, voyage and discovery.
The exterior Vortex stage provides the gladiatorial arena for the Doomed Battle, a combat between a contortionist pair of joined monsters and O the god, seconded by mortals. There's lots of good-natured cheerleading and cat-calling.
Act IV is staged on the Vortex ramp, where the characters declaim their distresses and dilemmas, variously mocked, assisted and countered by fellow cast members.
At the Bizarre Bazaar you can trade the red tickets from your program for a variety of goods imaginary and otherwise. I happily purchased a cherry-lipsticked kiss on the cheek from McCoy and a squirt from the waterbag carried by Jimenez, decided to abstain from Vastine's offer of de-spiderization, traded a ticket and a dream with Kannou for a mint candy, and volunteered to purchase salvation from Collado as O (in this case, for Overbearing, for the actor snatched up all remaining tickets and returned only one). That meant I couldn't afford to purchase the Best 30 Seconds Ever from McMaster, a sort of actors' mirror exercise of grimaces and exclamations that looked like a lot of fun.
The finale back in the theatre features the selection by popular acclaim of an individual to be proclaimed as the Good Person. Nominations are open. For our performance GenEnCo's acting-out characters offered themselves, someone in the seats immediately called for the director, and one friend in the dark put forth a companion who in fact secured the most enthusiastic applause -- whether as plant or a true ingenue, as a known supporter or simply a good sport, I couldn't judge.
GenEnCo actors are attractive persons, plainly convinced that their celebration and insouciance will win our hearts. You won't find finely crafted linear narrative here, but you can greatly enjoy the surprises and discoveries of their invitational, up-close performance.
Don't worry about too much about the color-coding that shorb's so careful to explain. I gleefully wound that green band around one arm, while my visiting brother used a yellow 'caution' band, just in case things got too strange for him. There wasn't really much difference. GenEnCo folks look and sound wild, but they're kind and respect your space. In fact, they're just the sort of exuberant crew that one would enjoy as neighbors. At least most of the time!
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
May 16 - June 1, 2014 7:30 pm (Thurs-Sun) -- 3 weeks only
Free Parking. Bus Route.
Admission: $30 Priority Seating, $20 General Admission, $10 Artist/Student/Senior
Available at www.vortexrep.org or 512-478-5282
Advance Purchase Recommended.
Radical Rush offers limited free tickets every performance night in the spirit of sustainability, accessibility, and participating in the gift economy. Radical Rush tickets released an hour before the performance starts--first come first serve! In-person only!