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Pilgrims in Cyberspace


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Loofah Method

at Live Bait Theater, through May 22

Wireless Ballroom, Loofah Method's new show, has a moral to its story--it's a classic, really, the one about not forgetting the human heart. But unfortunately, even as the Loofahs warn us of the dangers of technology, they're completely overwhelmed by it; even as they caution us about the tension between rationality and imagination, their show turns predictable and monotonous.

Ironically, in Wireless Ballroom everything's wired, both literally and figuratively. The stage is dominated by a giant video screen and covered with keyboards, video monitors, and banks of computers. And the figurative wiring is so ornately--and needlessly--tied into knots, so dependent on the technology, that when the message finally emerges, it's hard to disentangle it from the mess. It's also hard to take it seriously. It's as if, after a wildly imaginative demonstration of knots to be used for rustling and hanging, these little tantalizing tangles were discovered to be best suited as shoelaces. This show dazzles with its technical wizardry but rings false when it comes to its message about the importance of the human element. Wireless Ballroom is so set and calculated, because of the technology, that there is virtually no room for the human imperfection, for accidents and improvisation, the show seeks to exalt.

Certainly part of the techno spillage is deliberate, the necessary backdrop against which to cast the battle between mind and heart. But just as a writer must avoid boredom even when writing about boredom itself, the Loofahs can't afford to trip on their wiring. In Wireless Ballroom they do; in Wireless Ballroom you most certainly can see the guys behind the curtain--and they don't have the folksy wisdom of the Emerald City's professor-king. They seem nervous and unsure about the piece; if they notice you've noticed, they'll just pull the curtain back.

And yet Wireless Ballroom is an important show, a crucial performance for Loofah Method that may well determine its future creative direction. From here, the Loofahs will emerge a little less innocent, maybe a little less sunny. From here, the Loofahs will either add up their lessons and embark on a whole new, darker journey or bust.

Here's the thing about the Loofahs: no matter what, there's always an avalanche of activity onstage and it's always interesting. Whether their experiments succeed or fail, they always beguile, always stimulate. They're a pleasure to watch and chronicle because they're constantly challenging, if not the audience, then themselves. With the Loofahs, the journey is always at least as engaging as the final destination.

In Wireless Ballroom the Loofahs have set some goals for themselves. The most obvious is to formally work with a director. Although Sharon Evans was involved in last year's Loofah outing, her participation began in the latter stages of the project. James Grigsby, their choice for this show, was in on it from the start.

In many ways, Grigsby's perfect: like the Loofahs, he enjoys technology and he's visual, musical, verbal, and hip. Like them he's a perfectionist and a professional. He's also a longtime Live Bait associate, having inaugurated the space with Terminal Madness back in 1987. But in other ways Grigsby is quite different from the Loofahs. While they're warm and earnest, he's cool and cerebral; while they struggle to be political, he's always above current events; while they are charming autodidacts, he is an academic, a product of and teacher at art schools.

No doubt when she brought them together Evans hoped that Grigsby's sophistication might rub off on the Loofahs, and perhaps that their inherent humanity might rub off on him. But I don't think it worked. Even though the stuff about the heart in Wireless Ballroom is central, it still seems pinned on, almost an afterthought. The ending in particular seems a postscript. There's a lot of setup for the story--which concerns a pilgrim entering cyberspace, then returning--but little development. And although the show is slicker and more technologically complicated than Loofah's previous products, it's got a Grigsbyan emotional distance--an iciness--that buries the group's usual charm. Maybe Grigsby's just too cool, too cynical to really grapple with the Loofah's genuine . . . well, sweetness.

And yet he may have taught them some lessons. For starters, Wireless Ballroom dares two important things not seen in a Loofah show before: an actual narrative line and all-new material. Past Loofah shows have been constructed from individual pieces, usually created by poet Cin Salach and musician Mark Messing, routinely employing a host of interdisciplinary collaborators including videomakers, photographers, visual artists, actors, and so on. Usually the shows repeat one or two pieces from previous programs.

But in Wireless Ballroom the Loofahs eschew their usual format of six or seven little stories with one big theme in favor of a single, long, operatic tale (though it's still divided into sections). And all of it is new. Perhaps because most of their stories worked on one level, two at most, the Loofahs seem to be stretched mighty thin when challenged to tell a single tale over an hour. In this show there's needless thematic repetition and a surprising absence of resonance. And although Wireless Ballroom brings together about 30 artists, most are in rigid cameo roles. They mostly work for the Loofah Method rather than with it. Even Kurt Heintz, who is the third official Loofah and the video virtuoso whose work has helped define the group, seems to be playing a marginal role here--he's barely onstage--despite the inundation of technology.

Heintz may be more of attendant lord than ever before, but he still owns one of the evening's best pieces--an entirely successful one. "Correspondence" does what the rest of the evening does not: it uses technology to serve an idea. In this piece Heintz appears as an opaque, hypnotic figure on the video monitors reading an E-mail letter that is unabashed in its yearning for connection. In "Correspondence," the difficulty of our modern existence--with its vast array of communication toys--is subtly and ironically commented upon.

Unlike Salach, whose writing is usually central in Loofah's work, Heintz isn't clever; his poetic voice is less polished, more personal, more self-effacing and quiet. Since given more time in the spotlight as a writer, he has proved an able counterpoint to her. Laying their two voices side by side creates more of a sense of space, sometimes of dialogue. Because their sensibilities are so different, they add layers and colors to the Loofah Method that neither one could achieve on her or his own.

But curiously, Wireless Ballroom is neither Heintz's show nor Salach's--it's Messing's. Playing the pilgrim who stumbles into an ornate techno universe, Messing is an everyman seduced by the many options available at the click of a mouse. Messing is much more comfortable now onstage than he's ever been before. He's all arms and legs, a tangle of pick-up sticks, snappy and ironic. But Messing hasn't figured out how to vary his emotional pace yet; he plays everything at the same rhythm, the same volume--and that adds to the sense of running in place that Wireless Ballroom gets about midway through. (Indeed, if at previous shows it sometimes seemed that there was too much Salach and not enough of everyone else, by halftime here Wireless Ballroom seems to be calling her name.)

It's Salach, working with Sheila Donohue, who provides the evening's best piece, "I Want to Talk to You Before I Eat You." Donohue, on-screen, finishes Salach's sentences as Salach plays an elegant patron at an elegant bistro whose food has, in a way, come to life. "I've been working in the chicken mines," Donohue says, "mining chickens from the earth." Here the two women reinvent everyday reality, both to comment on and transform it. The piece achieves its complexity through its simple inventions, its quirky inversion of the quotidian. It resonates because its particulars are all recognizable, but newly--and wonderfully--rearranged.

Wireless Ballroom needs more of that freshness.

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