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Normandy Sherwood in "Abacus Black Strikes NOW!" Photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Cirque du Soulless
By Kevin Byrne

Abacus Black Strikes NOW!: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black
By Mark Doskow, Normandy Sherwood, and James Stanley
The National Theater of the United States of America






We're traveling to the City of Gold, everybody. A place of guarded safety and like-minded thinkers who share our belief in the divine righteousness of the human spirit. That is, unless we are consumed by zombies along the way.

At least, that's the story behind the newest theater piece by the National Theater of the United States of America, Abacus Black Strikes NOW!: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black. Recently performed at PS 122, the play is high-octane buffoonery as silly as it is sophisticated. It mashes together (with varying degrees of success) different theatrical traditions to tell an elaborate tale combining national mythology and pseudo-religious apocrypha. Abacus Black is equal parts magic show, medicine show, freak show, and revival meeting; and the play references these traditions as a way of enveloping the audience in its seductive worldview and selling them back a funhouse-mirror reflection of their own complacency. It wasn't until the show was over that I realized how much I had been laughing at myself.

Officially formed in 2000, the NTUSA has emerged as one of the most oddball theater collectives in New York, and Abacus Black is a good example of their evolving aesthetic experimentation. "Through immersion in intoxicating theatrical universes," their mission statement explains, "we strive for complicity with our audience, promoting an infinity of possibilities and perceptions." The company's several productions to date, presented in locations as varied as vacant delis and abandoned shoe stores, foreground the physical act of artistic production in the telling of fractured narratives. The script of Abacus Black is credited to NTUSA members Mark Doskow, Normandy Sherwood, and James Stanley, but the company typically develops its concepts and texts as a group. Their democratic, rhizomatic approach is at the heart of Abacus Black's unfocused but abundant energy and intentionally confounded message.

Detailing the plot to Abacus Black is like trying to describe a fever dream. As one of the performers reminds the audience at the top of the show, the undead roam the very streets outside the theater and the company is trying to persuade us to join their pilgrimage to the promised land. They have a latter-day Moses as guide: Abacus Black, a six-hundred-year-old living relic and former crusader whom they keep in a small cage and to whom they pay obsequious homage throughout the action. Black has the knowledge they seek but he won't share it with anyone, even his followers. The performers offer up personal testimonies about dancing angels and shining golden daggers, explaining what brought them to Black and acting out his biography with the help of cardboard puppets and play-within-a-play metatheatrics.

We see Black's medieval childhood in Europe, where he receives a vision of a City of Gold located in the new world. An unknown amount of time passes, and after crossing the ocean Black travels through the American desert with a crazed Daniel Boone-like character in a ratty coon-skin cap. Black has a messiah complex that allows him to rewrite Old Testament verses and believe unquestioningly in the City of Gold, and when his rustic guide begins doubting their cause, he is beheaded. The anachronistic coupling of medieval knight with Natty Bumppo is indicative of the show's narrative gallimaufry, where trials of faith--religious epiphanies, journeys in the desert, moments of confusion regarding divine intervention--are joined with American self-reliance and frontiersmanship. The layering of the two histories is chaotic but not careless: the manifest destiny of expansion and domination applies to both medieval Europeans and American homesteaders. During this middle section of the piece, the pace slows considerably. The desert saga is depicted through a series of short vignettes about the pair's deteriorating partnership.

After the Cain-like slaying of his fellow traveler, Black's story jumps in time to the present. It's never explained how the company captured Black but they recite to the caged crusader the virtues of the City of Gold: high golden walls for protection against hordes of brain-eaters and room inside for the living faithful. One performer wanders onstage after being infected by a ghoul and proceeds to "turn" the rest of the company. After one member is bitten on the arm, she croons a sultry torch song about her newfound sunny outlook on an undead life--an inspired moment. The play ends with the cast preaching about adaptation and slurping brain juice while inviting the audience to join their journey to the "electronical" golden city. This technological touch, the fact that they now believe the City of Gold to be wired for electronic security and surveillance, adds a sense of modern American paranoia to the literal and figurative mecca.

Theatrically speaking, the NTUSA has done its homework. Their carney-inflected style gestures toward numerous traditions of popular theater. In the play's opening moments, for instance, after a brief horror-show prologue, the cast bursts on and erects a diminutive proscenium stage decorated like a circus sideshow while heavy metal music blares. The costumes, a mixture of gothic black and rose red, suggests "carnival mortician." The elaborate dress and precise choreography contrast with the cast's complete lack of expression or emotion, though they are not yet zombies. They are already intent on proselytizing and this ersatz fervor covers the play like a shroud.

The show's excellent fakery and layered referentiality mask a jumbled political message. The search for security is elevated to a cultic need for purity, and the devoted are obviously blinded by and to their own fanaticism. There is a desperation not only to their quest but also to what their goal represents: a gated community that physicalizes their Manichean designation of good us and bad them. Here, Abacus Black owes a debt to George Romero's tetralogy of zombie films with their class-based criticism of American excess. With so much political flotsam scattered in a sea of theatrical flimflammery, I was also reminded of Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater and his 2004 production King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe! Foreman's titular figure was a clear satirical version of George Bush, whereas Black has no direct analogy. He is a mummified cipher in a monkey cage; and by whispering "electronical" in capitulation to the prevailing (brain loving) ideology, he quietly sums up the performance.

With Abacus Black, as in earlier NTUSA works, the characters are themselves performers and their efforts at either jocularity or pathos are rendered comical by the extremes of the acting style and dress. You laugh both at their zealotry and at yourself laughing. Their striving for peace and security is very human--and ironical given their willingness to relinquish part of their humanity to achieve these things. In the end, I found the play giddy and troubling. The performers implore the audience to join their caravan, but the show itself seems to ask how much of our lives in recent days have been governed by a similar need for safety in the face of real or invented terrors. What is given up or taken in this process? Adaptation, compromise, and rhetorical obfuscation are needed to get to the City of Gold, everybody packs their own bags, and finds what companions they can for the trip.


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