In the second part of “Soundstage,” the main character makes a thrilling cut to the chase. He’s watching a short film of a woman with a bloody knife, and he says to skip to the end credits, because that’s always his favorite part. The short film fast forwards at pace and the end credits roll. The narrator dons a crimson red dress and walks across the stage, brandishing a knife and singing a duet with the woman on the screen in a song crossed between classical instrumental and electronica, with an emphasis on soaring low notes from the live cello choir behind the screen. Western canon art is present here, from Caravaggio’s flowing red robes to the medieval fascination of David with Goliath’s severed head, but an audience viewer doesn’t need those references. The scene is lush, elegant, and confusing, with enough absurdity – whoever heard of end credits in a play, let alone the middle of a play? – to provoke laughter from the audience.
"Soundstage," is now playing at the HERE Theater at 145 Sixth Ave in the West Village in New York City from September 13th to 29th. HERE Theater’s summary of the show says, “Soundstage is an audio and visual performance poem created by artist Rob Roth. Using the language of cinema, the piece reflects and refracts a ‘meditation on the muse,’ and her remedy for loneliness. Through a queer lens, the piece focuses on alternative realities blending and dissolving in a metaphysical and alchemic journey where sound, time, gender, and fantasy transform.” Roth was the creator and director, with Rebecca Hall appearing as the digital muse onscreen. The music was written by Yair Evnin, Rachelle Garniez, and Kamala Sankaram, with live music arrangements by Kristine Kruta. This is such a wonderful production and you should go see it.
“Soundstage,” tells the story of a live male narrator inside an apartment in front of two movie silver screens, which show a digital female narrator. The digital narrator also is projected onto mannequins at various times in the play (the use of projectors on mannequins is on par with contemporary art). This production has an antagonism against plot, perhaps following innovations by playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht thought by willfully deconstructing the illusions of a play as a play, he could hit the audience that much harder with inspiration to take lessons to real life.
For example, consider the relationship between the two narrators in this play, digital and physical. The live male character is dressed in drag, and is in his apartment. This might make any number of relationships between the two people possible, as in a son remembering his mother, or a woman’s relationship to her inner-conscience, or a gay man’s conflict of his fundamental being versus his outer formulated persona.
The play doesn’t answer this, and it doesn’t need to. In the last part of the play, the digital actress said there are dozens of men inside of her, as in the movie, “Being John Malkovich,” and this is illuminating without setting the record straight. The homunculus idea – a tiny man inside of a person’s skull – happens from time to time in science fiction, such as “Black Mirror,” the first “Men in Black,” movie, or later the forgotten Eddie Murphy comedy, “Meet Dave.” Playwright Roth is much more interested in the Brechtian consequences of having a conscience without committing to this science fiction idea, and this works to the excitement of the play because the audience needs to decide for itself what the moral to the story is.
The digital avatar, on the other hand, possesses and undergoes a series of perspectives at turns whimsical or tragic. In one extended scene, the female roams around an empty farmhouse, lamenting her role as a selfless caregiver. But wait! There’s some indication the woman was only accidentally trying to fulfill her ideal of her mother as caregiver! And of course the feminine effigy is questioned in the play’s final scenes as an actress all together, negating the first two roles.
Because this production believes and trusts in its audience so firmly, none of the confusion attacks the audience or tries the patience. Roth likely borrowed ideas from filmmaker David Lynch, most recently famous for his “Twin Peaks,” revival -- who deconstructs narratives and plots to reveal insights about the human subconscious. And “Soundstage,” uses ambiguity like indie film “Holy Motors.” In that film, a dozen or so sketches question the nature of playing at being a human. In the opening scenes of “Holy Motors,” a beggar woman takes off her clothes to reveal she is a businessman; in another scene a man simulates drone warfare before using the same video game as pornography. Because “Holy Motors,” keeps re-framing its sketches, the viewer has a hard time figuring out which narrative is the most authentic, or which moral needs repeating and ultimately imitation in her own life. What “Soundstage,” and “Holy Motors,” want from their viewers is not to imitate movies and popular culture blindly – rather to come up with a greater consideration for one’s own unique life. At last, “Soundstage,” bucks simple or easy psychoanalysis that would find fault with the narrator’s mother or childhood trauma. Finding an easy problem of trauma doesn’t lead to enlightenment and taking action in the present. Its tough love for the audience is encouraging.