2:36 pm Sep. 28, 2012
Plays that center on the vexed relationships and psychologies of miserable people trapped together in domestic interiors can be great (Think Hedda Gabler or Miss Julie… or Streetcar!), but nowadays they’re often tiresome and predictable instead, and even the idea of seeing a quote-unquote realistic play is enough to send some spectators running in the opposite direction.
But David Levine’s Habit, appearing this month as part of the FIAF/P.S. 122 Crossing the Line Festival, stands these expectations on their heads by staging the most deliberately conventional of plays within a set of totally unconventional contexts: an art installation in a warehouse gallery space.
The play, titled Children of Kings, is by one of the leading lights of the downtown playwriting scene, Jason Grote, and was written specifically for Habit. It features three characters: Doug, Mitch, and Viv. Doug deals cocaine, his brother Mitch wants to be a poet and has recently been laid off from his job at Walmart, Viv is their high school friend visiting home from college who works part-time as a stripper and has a fondness for quoting Barthes and Nietzsche.
The play takes place in the house where Doug and Mitch live. For Habit however, this house isn’t represented by a unit-set living room built on a proscenium stage. Instead the house is a fully three-dimensional, free-standing structure (an “environment” as the program materials describe it, designed by Marsha Ginsberg) installed in the center of an otherwise empty building in the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market. The structure is stocked with everything required for the play to unfold, including food, running water, and electricity. From the outside, the audience sees mostly drywall and electrical riggings. Inside, a fully realized set (or something near it: the exposed seams in the drywall are a nice touch) depicting a house in the aftermath of a raging Halloween party, complete with that funky post-party smell.
From within this enclosure, the actors perform the 90-minute play repeatedly for eight hours at a time, alternating daily between two casts. The audience stands at the perimeter of the house, looking in through large empty windows and scuttling around the structure to follow the actors as they move from one room to the next.
Some of these windows don't provide clear perspectives around the house's many interior walls and doorways, so one's ability to follow the actors is often frustrated by the structure's internal sight lines. This fact, together with the "method"-style, understated, sotto voce quality of much of the spoken dialogue, means that the spectators are constantly being reminded that it's not possible to view or hear the drama in its totality, especially after only one enactment. (Of course, this impossibility is true of the experience of spectatorship in general, regardless of the theater event, but Habit makes real artistic hay out of it.)
This isn’t the first time Levine has attempted something like this. Since the time of his work in the early 2000s with the CiNE Initiatives group, he has regularly engaged the relationships of art and art-making to labor practices (that the days are eight-hours is far from arbitrary), institutions to ideology, and spectatorship to spectacle (as inDebord’s Society of the …).
In 2004, for example, his project ‘Night, Motherfucker featured “shifts of union actors” “locked in a fake minimalist sculpture and paid to act classic two-person Broadway plays [like Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother] on an endless loop, during gallery hours, for a week.” A later project, Bauerntheater (2007), involved an American actor (David Barlow) training in New York for the role of a potato farmer in Heiner Müller’s play Die Umsiedlerin; Barlow was later flown to Brandenberg, Germany, “given two acres of land, and asked to be ‘in character’ for 14 hours a day, for a month.”
Nor is Levine the only contemporary artist in recent memory to try pushing the boundaries between theater and the visual arts. Just this past April, the theater director Richard Maxwell and his company The New York City Players were invited to participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial: their contribution was a series of open rehearsals for a new project that were staged for the public within the Whitney exhibition hall.
In Habit, these tensions are everywhere on display. Still, they take a back seat to the virtuosic labor of the three actors working their ways through Grote’s script again and again and again. While the actors must stick to their lines, their blocking and line readings differ widely from one enactment to the next. As they go about their required tasks, they respond improv-style to their new configurations. No two performances are even remotely similar, and the spectator is invited to stay for as many repetitions as he or she likes. (Full disclosure: I stayed for two and a half, but would have enjoyed staying longer.)
This means that one performance may start with Viv and Mitch sleeping on a couch in the living room, the next may begin with Viv climbing out of the tub and puking into the toilet, the next with Doug and Viv giggling as they discover Mitch thrusting his hips into a pumpkin in the bathroom. Each time the play restarts, its new beginning is set amid the remains of its previous endings. From these new beginnings, divergent choreographies emerge. Even the final, climactic events of Grote’s play are subject to change. If in obvious ways Habit focuses on habitat and habitation, it alsoasks question of how variation enters into instances of enforced repetition.
This point is of dramaturgical concern for Grote as well. The script focuses not only on the drug habits of its central characters, but also on numerous other destructive aspects of social conditions and behaviors that depend on repetition: economy as habit, morality as habit.
One has to wonder, amid all of Habit's conceptual richness, just how much are these actors being compensated for their theatrical labor? Is this art, or exploitation? Beckett once described habit as “the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit.” While Children of Kings only gestures indirectly toward the material conditions under which existence is understandable as such, its enforced repetitions within Habit's walls will certainly get you thinking about them.
‘Habit’ is being presented by the French Institute Alliance Française and P. S. 122 as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, and is taking place at the Essex Street Market, Building B, 130 Essex Street in Manhattan until Sunday, September 30. Admission is free. All photographs by Julieta Cervantes.
More by this author:
- American collapse and dark humor in 'Detroit,' with David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan
- French baroque ensemble Le Poème Harmonique brings early music to life