One of the strangest theater experiences of the season opened the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line Festival this weekend when Nature Theater of Oklahoma unveiled Episodes 4.5 and 5 of its as yet uncompleted, 16-hour epic known as Life and Times (reviewed here for Exeunt in June). For theatergoers unfamiliar with any of the 9 hours of the show’s previous installments, Life and Times is the verbatim performance of the unscripted telling of the life of company member Kristin Worrall, as captured on audiotape. Nature Theater of Oklahoma, or NTOK for short, is a Long Island City-based art and performance group that has come to prominence in Europe with quirky devised shows that look like nothing else on the contemporary stage. After the modernist musical/whodunit of Episodes 1-4, NTOK founding directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska raise the bar yet another notch in this newest chapter of Worrall’s story, by eschewing the codes of performance and, in Episode 5, plopping the result into the audience’s laps.
The audaciousness of the vision behind Life and Times may sometimes seem to want to pull the work off the stage and transport it into the thin air of theory, but this latest installment grapples deliberately with material challenges encountered along the way, namely the destruction of hours of Liska and Worrall’s conversation that dealt with the actress’ high school years. But taking a certain adage to heart, the eminently creative husband-wife team decided to make lemonade of the lemons they’d been dealt. What could they do with only a quarter hour of text that would still capture the spirit of Worrall’s teenage searchings? The answer – evident only to Copper and Liska perhaps – was a short animated film and an illuminated book. Episodes 4.5 and 5 were born.
Previous audiences to Life and Times may now feel, rightfully, like a member of Ms. Worrall’s family, so unguarded – and unedited – are her reminiscences, which cover topics ranging from her earliest sensory perceptions of her mother to the abusive father of a childhood friend to band practice and art classes in high school. But any warm familiarity with the “characters” of those episodes grew in large part from the irresistible cast, who danced and sang with jaw-dropping energy through some of the most mundane and arbitrary material ever seen in a theater. Except for the voices of Julie LaMendola and Robert M. Johanson, who deliver Ms. Worrall’s text in Episode 4.5, those actors are replaced, in these newest chapters, by images drawn by Copper and Liska, in which the couple figures prominently.
Prominently, and, inevitably for some, uncomfortably. The central, looping sequence of the animated film, which was created by retracing individual frames from a home movie, is of Copper playing with her cat. The eruption of “real-life” images feels like a visual non-sequitur, but does prepare the audience for seeing more of Copper and Liska (much more, in all senses of the term, and a first in Life and Times) later: Episode 5 consists of the timed reading of a book that the couple hand-lettered and illustrated in the spirit of European medieval manuscripts and which depicts them engaging in a series of sexual acts in the style of the Indian Kama Sutra and Japanese shunga paintings.
From even the earliest days of Life and Times, Copper and Liska have been clear that their intention with each new segment has been to zero in on a given aspect of performance and to question the viability and the limits of each (or as they write in the program notes, “to choose an aesthetic form which makes us uncomfortable or is outside our skillset”). In Episodes 4.5 and 5, Copper and Liska drop any pretense of performance, first by challenging their audience to look for the “performance” in a largely static series of isolated images, and then by asking them to forget they came to see a show at all, by handing them a small blue hardcover volume and telling them to read it. That the audience is accompanied for the length of their timed reading (44 minutes and 28 seconds, to be precise) by a live organist (composer Daniel Gower) only underscores the anti-performative nature of NTOK’s endeavor here. Clearly, a performance rests on some kind of collectively experienced action; take it away and all that is left is an audience with books.
So much for the experiment and its results, which might just be more edifying for the company than for their public, but shouldn’t. What we are inclined to take away from these newest episodes ought not be the explicit content of the illustrations, although their insertion in “Life and Times” rests on the arguable premise that the awakening sexuality of the adolescent Worrall as related in these episodes (along with discussion of choosing new wallpaper and carpeting for her bedroom), merits over a hundred pseudo-shungas, however finely drawn they may be. It might, justifiably, be the repetitiveness of the images in both segments, which, along with the booms and screeches of Gower’s organ (sending many in the audience scrambling for the earplugs that were thoughtfully provided with each book, along with a reading light), at times defied our powers of concentration (an outcome which might also have been intentional).
Rather, the overall impression of these genre-defying moments would hopefully be informed by the curiosity, questioning and creativity that Copper and Liska are applying to theater as we know it. Their choices may require some explaining, their methods may not appeal to everyone, and the whole “moment” may seem frustratingly befuddling, but the risks that NTOK always sets itself are never gratuitous but come from a genuine desire to understand why we make theater and how it communicates meaning. The process of making Episodes 4.5 and 5 eventually threatened Copper’s ability even to hold a pen and she writes several times in the book’s Afterword that the entire process was a “labor of love.” NTOK’s single-minded dedication to their art and their versatility in exploring its possibilities, never more so than in Episodes 4.5 and 5, are what makes them unique and their experiments worth the challenge.