Cirque du Soulless
By Kevin Byrne
Abacus Black Strikes NOW!: The Rampant
Justice of Abacus Black
By 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
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
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.