Problem Radical(s) is an experimental theatricalist opera just the way such things should be and rarely are. Creators Kara Feely and Travis Just have created a sophisticated collision between elegant formal considerations and the disruptive garbage of a world going down the drain that is exciting and exhilarating. The spectator is swept away in its delirious mix and emerges clear and emotionally refreshed.
The four performers of Problem Radicals(s) are thrown onto a stage littered with clothes and cultural detritus. Along the upstage wall are images, pasted onto posterboard, of military jets and various souped-up vehicles to carry human beings: speed and motion forward are of the essence here. The sequence of arias and recitatives itself is different for each performance, but the “set list,” unlike those of rock and jazz bands, isn’t hidden, taped behind amplifiers or to the floor, but worn as an armband by each one of the singers. Those arias and recitatives often have to do with motion or radicalism: with running or action, often hysterically exaggerated, and captured by a video camera at stage right that rotates 360 degrees throughout the opera (though at some delay). Each one of these sequences is certainly purposeful, and as the armbands suggest, there is a precise sequence directed to an end of some kind: but to what end? Or are the performers just unthinkingly going through the motions?
The new opera from Object Collection is an exploration of contemporary human activity, from running to self-protection; each one of the performers is uniquely alienated from the others. Travis Just’s noise-based score, drawn from a variety of sources, provides a post-Wagnerian soundscape that reflects the haunting and threatening but hidden motives of the “characters” here, as they engage in a variety of acts, from violent movement to wry resignation. The satiric targets of the play are two-fold, the assimilation of military and political fear into contemporary social life and a post-capitalist consumerism that aims to consume them all. In one of the most memorable sequences, Caitlin McDonough Thayer attempts to wildly don each one of the dozens of clothing pieces that litter the floor until she is nearly hidden in layer upon layer of shirts, bathing suits, socks, jackets and scarves; finally, reaching a point at which her bodily movement is paralyzed by the clothing, she relaxes and begins to strip each piece from her body, one at a time. We are relieved, too, at her final escape from her entrapment in the clothes (and happy to be free from this self-suffocation as well).
The performers in this post-structuralist gesamtkunstwerk – Karl Allen, Francesco Gagliardi, Caitlin McDonough Thayer and Avi Glickstein (standing in for Sarah Dahlen at the performance I attended) – are always intent, often charming and unerringly expressive through the moods that whip past through the evening, and this strangely distanced human expressivity draws attention to the seemingly disparate and disconnected fragments of life that comprise Problem Radical(s). For there is life there, hidden beneath all those images and clothes, and it does require a radical revisioning to see it – which Feely and Just provide.
Object Collection performs excerpts from Problem Radical(s) and is interviewed live on WFMU’s “Acousmatic Theater Hour”
Problem Radical(s): An Experimental Opera
by Megan Cahn
“We wanted to make a piece that was not just about radicalism, but in itself radical,” explains Kara Feely, writer and director of the experimental opera Problem Radical(s) put on by the performance group Object Collective. A challenge that Feely saw when taking on this extreme task, was the “inherent contradiction in the concept or even the word radical – which both means to get to the root something but then also, trying to change.”
So one of the questions Feely faced when writing the script, what the performance itself tries to answer is, “what happens when you try and make a foundation of something that is constantly trying to improve and change itself?”
Her answer was to put together a “fundamentally unstable performance.” So each night the script-a collage of different found sources citing radical thinkers from the beginning of American history up to the 1960s, as well as a plethora of contemporary activism found through media broadcasts and Internet babble-changes each night. You will never see the same show twice.
The opera itself is modular, but there are many sections that are re-ordered every performance, to constantly change the flow. And this is not the only shift happening during Problem Radical(s). It is not only a highly theatrical opera with four actors, three musicians, and an entire original and continuous score written by Travis Just; but also an art installation piece that grows over the course of the performance run.”
The show changes on a microscopic scale and a large scale. Two formal shifts are happening: small on the level of performance and large on the level of the room and the environment,” explains Feely.
So what happens when you watch a piece that breaks these traditional rules of theater?
Roy William Scranton explains in his review of the piece:
“What begins to happen, watching the show, is that you stop waiting for things to make sense. Instead of looking for a plot, a symbolic or lyrical structure, or even the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic that so often crudely reinstantiates dramatic structures ostensibly eschewed, you begin to give yourself over to watching, wondering, thinking about all this stuff on stage and what the idea of political theater even means”
DO THE MATH
Object Collection calculates a new opera
by Alexis Soloski
Radical numbers are a subgroup of algebraic integers, and they’re also another name for the experimental songs in Object Collection’s addled opera, Problem Radical(s). Writer-director Kara Feely, composer Travis Just, and installation designer Hannah Dougherty expose an assemblage of electric guitars, rubber gloves, disco balls, industrial goggles, and some really appalling wigs. Though revelations of the show’s plot remain guarded, they will disclose a preoccupation with “American radical thinkers, civic activists, and maneuverable personal blimps.
The show has received the imprimatur of downtown maestro Richard Foreman, who calls the opera “a sophisticated collision between elegant formal considerations and the disruptive garbage of a world going down the drain” -audiences are invited to solve this complex equation.
“…[t]he sheer noise, aural and visual, packs a Richard Foreman-esque thrill. Just’s electronic, antimelodic score has drama and humor, and Hannah Dougherty’s environment seems packed with incipient incident.”
“It’s shows like this that shut down the NEA”