Big Art Group's S.O.S. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Big Art Group encouraged the audience to use their cellphones to take pics of the performance. These were snapped by Ernie Lafky who was sitting behind me. The top photo captures the balloon-gasm which concluded the performance.


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 23-25, 2009, 8pm

Q: “We’re parodies, what more can we do?”

A: “You’re a fool, dear.”

Big Art Group’s S.O.S. is (theater of the) Ridiculous B movie camp that may or may not be something else entirely. The hyper talented cast plays a trashy queer family of post drag revolutionaries sucking into the big nothing that might or might not be Realness, I mean, Realness ®. The gifted text crams the jargon of all the new academic Studies (Cultural, Gender, Performance, Queer, American) into chaotic fusion with the equally disturbing textual simulacra (infinite copies of ideological cliché) of the non-profit industrial complex. Are you with me? Neither am I. Now add lots of costumes, wigs, lights, loud music, body mics, live and prerecorded video projections, and children’s theater puppet crafts. (I mean by children not for children.)

S.O.S. is created by Caden Manson (director as well as video, set & costume designer), Jemma Nelson (writer, dramaturg, sound design) and Big Art Group. The script is near genius. I was jealous that I didn't write it first. The performers detailed professionalism does not detract from their freakish dissonance with professional theater. These people shriek and moan. I heart these fierce queens. The performance devolves more like a crisis, a situation. Picture a spectacular collision of lowbrow and high-tech with the budget and attitude of Vienna’s Superamas or Meg Stuart at Berlin’s Volksbuhne or an early opera by Peter Sellers. Big. Messy. Witty.

Eight large screens. Too many cameras to count. (They call it Real-Time Film.) More cheap f/x than you can shake an ur-text at. The fake fights of Reality TV. Facebook gossip. Twitters in a Cockettes film of Patricia Nixon’s wedding. And the Blaire Witch Project except that instead of dumbass actors who talk like mall rats lost in a suburban forest, it’s animals (or theme park mascots who think they’re animals) lost in a forest of technology. Anyway they’ve escaped the cage, their libido is wack, and they have no vocabulary to articulate their crisis.

Low-tech flashlights meet high-tech body harness video cams that televise the performer’s facial minutia in a banal mimicry of TV ads and drugged youtube videos. I say Hegemony, you say Fabulous. Hegemony! Fabulous!

These virtuosic speed talkers spit postdramatic text mashups of infomercial, black drag queens, academic critiques of accumulation and identity politics, spasms of relentless self-obsession and pop nostalgia for Patty Hearst era revolutionaries. Yes, its’ the Realness Liberation Front. Cut to Realness ® logo. Cut back to actor, queen, slave. Cut to stage hand (queen, slave) jiggling photo for earthquake-like background. Cut back to actor, fauxqueen, slave, spewing verbiage that we know too well.

Most of you won’t know what I mean when I say it reminded me of a particularly wild night at Trannyshack with a super fat budget but of course SF anarcho-queens would never agree to this many rehearsals and would never be granted the $50,000 in video equipment. Or was it more?

Frustrated screams morph into orgasmic moans and then neurotic giggles. “That is so totally fucked up.” I agree. “You are preparing us for consumption, for transition.” Wait I get the consumption bit but what do you mean by transition? Too late, they’ve spun faster than minds can acquire, “Slipstreaming past each other’s essentiality.” I’ll say. “The philosophy of the hopeless will be done with. We will begin the eon of a new Nothing!” These people look like they’re on acid but they talk like they’re on crystal.

Insane costumes of hundreds of those long twisted clown balloons consume the actor within. S.O.S.’s increasingly mad antics climax with an orgy of balloon attack and mic feedback. My buddy Jeff Mooney points out that this is the only time they directly touched each other. Meanwhile the escalation of spectacular nothingness continues to explode outwards while simultaneously sucking everything into its black holes of non-center. Lights out. The end. The revolution will be ridiculous.

What happened? Big Art Group re-presents trashy 70's drag freaks with massive techno budgets and very ambitious updates of Ludlum and Cockette. The text was pretty brilliant and the performers are delish but is it good or bad or just something? After they sucked us all into the big Nothing, most of us left empty, as in, I feel empty. Is Big Art Group the Dada provocateurs of our time: meaningless art to confront meaningless spasms and twitters of unending war and capital accumulation? Why don't I love it the way I love the Dada of 1916? Half my friends thought that S.O.S. constructed a brilliant and empty spectacle about the brilliance and emptiness of the capitalist spectacle. How brilliant! How empty! The rest acted like they’d snorted poppers and ran naked into a summer rain, smiling widely.

Then I realized that as much as it had one foot in the 70s and another in the 00s (pronounced, the naughts), Big Art Group’s S.O.S had another ancestor in The Living Theatre’s 1963 production of The Brig. The play, written by Kenneth H. Brown, is a hyperrealist representation of a US Marine prison in 1950s Korea. In this hellish dystopia the men can’t speak to each other. The stage is a complex grid of territories and every line crossed requires a ritual of submission and humiliation. The audience knows it’s bad, it’s hell, and they might be there forever. In S.O.S. we don’t even know. We think it’s fun or smartly ironic. The animals think they’ve escaped the enclosure but of course they can’t survive in the wild. They can’t even tell that there is no wild, that there’s only enclosure, surveillance, projection, a reality game. Their solidarity breaks down and they consume each other. In The Brig someone tries to escape. He cries out, “I am not a number. I have a name!” He is beaten and carried away in a strait jacket. In S.O.S, no one tries to escape. There’s nowhere to go. It’s all a borderland swamp where escape and captivity merge. Submission and humiliation are natural traits, embodied. We think we chose these products, these rules, these enclosures. Hyper connectivity and abbreviated codes for accelerated chat echo in the prison of a technosphere maintained by a panopticon of personalized webcams. We’re all on TV all the time. Ok children, everybody surveil themselves, turn yourselves in, beat yourself up. In both projects – The Brig and S.O.S. - the performers sacrifice themselves to an equally rigorous labor of seemingly meaningless gestures – stand here, cross this line, don’t move, move like this – all the better to control their every desire. The demand on the actors, by the director and the writer, reproduces a totalitarian regime rooted in some kind of consensual SM that any ballet dancer or football player would recognize. A ritual of sacrifice enacted on the young bodies of the players.

According to Big Art Group’s website, this sacrificial ritual called S.O.S. has a much older ancestor than The Living Theater. In 1913, Le Sacre du Printemps caused some kind of riot or disruption with Stravinsky’s dissonant and polyrhythmic score and Nijinsky’s choreography for a pagan girl, sacrificed by her own people. She dances herself to death. Attempting a “celebration of renewal through chaos” S.O.S. revisits the scene of the (art) crime to ask the question, "Can sacrifice create a new beginning?"