Of the many shows in the new theater season, a particularly ambitious one may go unnoticed, although it is kicking off FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival this week. The reason is that Episodes 7, 8 and 9 of Life and Times, by the devised theater geniuses at Nature Theater of Oklahoma, won’t be performed in any live context and will hardly be seen at all. Life and Times is the company’s heroic adventure in verbatim storytelling, which, after trying different genres of live performance, an animated cartoon and a book, spanning nearly 10 hours, now embraces film and video for close to another five. But there is only one chance to see what’s new, in a single screening on September 24 (Episode 8 will be shown at FIAF’s Opening Night party two days earlier).
As in Life and Times’ preceding chapters, these episodes pick up the unedited, meandering story of actress Kristin Worrall’s life where the previous chapter left off (the project’s premise is to stage some 16 hours of verbatim phone conversations between Worrall and company founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, as Worrall tells her tale beginning at birth). Viewers of earlier episodes will by now be familiar with Worrall’s “like”- and “uh”- inflected lingua franca, although it may take time to readjust to it (it’s been three years since Episodes 4.5 and 5 were seen in NYC, also at FIAF). Similarly unsurprising is the choice of film as a narrative medium, given the sheer size of the project, which would test any actor’s stamina in live performance.
The work is challenging for audiences as well, not only because of the show’s length. Episodes switch genres radically and abruptly, and earlier chapters pushed boundaries of performance. For example, Episode 1 required the cast to sing continuously while jumping in place and performing stylized gestures. Episode 5 is a hand-drawn and colored, Kama Sutra-inspired book of illustrations, starring Liska and Copper, which audiences are invited to peruse in the company of a live organist.
Comparatively, Episodes 7-9 feel more conventional: #7, shot in black and white, gleefully apes Citizen Kane’s cinematography, structure and iconic opening; #8 is a Cinemascopic homage to New York and #9 spoofs the codes of gangsta rap videos. Even for an enthusiastic fan of Life and Times like myself, the clownish tone of #7 and #9 (there are a lot of grotesquely false teeth, wigs and gratuitously exposed penises) began to feel like an inside joke.
Jokes aside, the pure ambition of the project remains impressive and its energy and creativity unmatched in contemporary theater. Lacking anything resembling intrigue or plot, Life and Times is a formal exercise above all, challenging audiences to tease out connections between the content of each episode and its form, to find an aesthetics of the ordinary that is both mysterious and satisfying. One of the best examples is those repetitive, geometric movements of Episode 1, which is about Worrall’s early childhood; they look awkward at first but eventually grow into an organic language of the child’s developing psyche. Episode 3 uses hip-hop to convey the awkward circling energy of adolescence. Episode 9’s gangsta rap celebrates Worrall’s new-found confidence as she begins to find herself. And so on.
Much can be said about Worrall’s story, as well, but not as concerns its explicit content. Episodes 7-9 continue the uneventful saga of an American Gen-Xer, as she trades her comfortably boring East Coast suburbia for the slackertude of a large Midwest state school, taking a year abroad for some cultural eye-openers before moving on a whim to NYC where she faces that age-old dilemma (in Worrall’s oft repeated, un-ironically dramatic phrase): “OH MY GOD, what am I going to do with my life?”
It’s true that in this age of You Tube sensation toddlers and Nobel Prize teenagers, Life and Times presents an average Jane as a refreshing alternative to blatant self-promotion and humbling courage. But unlike those earlier episodes where experience is refracted through the prisms of time, distance and maturity, these latest installments feel almost too close for comfort. Not only does the film medium allow Liska and Copper to explore a kind of realism (Episode 7 recreates scenes of Worrall’s year in Budapest, while Episode 8 thrusts the actors into the real-life settings of Ms. Worrall’s NYC), the narration is now mostly devoid of analysis. Instead, the story relates an uninterrupted stream of parties, boyfriends and temp jobs as mere facts, leaving the impression of a bleakly hedonistic and purposeless existence. Then too, some of Worrall’s gropings at introspection fizzle out when language fails her: Auschwitz is deemed “just, like, weird;” First Responders have mostly “boring jobs” (which made me laugh, coming from a tempist); the New School where she pursues a degree in sound design is “a pretend school,” and 9/11 was “exciting” because it provided a sense of purpose.
What is fascinating in her story lies at the interstices, where Liska and Copper don’t go but which this project of unscripted autobiography dares us to see. Although the narrator never acknowledges anything like this, her wanderings drop plenty of hints about class, race and gender in this country. It can be frustrating to want some insight or awareness of that and instead be served more parties, yet, such is the nature of the project.
And while that project is an ode to the average, the committed performers elevate it to art. The eight-member cast is anchored again by the marvelous Robert M. Johanson, always delightful whether hamming it up as Worrall’s roommate Yolanda in Episode 7 or singing his heart out with gripping intensity in Episode 8 (not even an uncooperative horse or staring commuters can shake his composure). The ensemble is joined in Episode 7 by Copper, who steps into focus at last (after remaining in the wings of most of the previous episodes) to do a convincing turn as Worrall’s older sister. Other inadvertently lovely moments are supplied by actress Asli Bulbul’s infant who dozes peacefully in her arms in several scenes: a blissful reminder to keep a zen approach to life’s ups and downs, or to take some lessons from Worrall’s approach to those as we raise the next generations.
The biggest star, though, might be New York City, which Liska’s generous panoramas and Copper’s lush coloring capture in all of its post-industrial might and fragility in Episode 8, from the surrounding Hudson River Valley to the city’s mammoth infrastructure and human diversity. There are some great scenes here: Johanson striding up Broadway with a trio of construction workers at his heels or singing on the E train as an Indian family stretches out on the opposite bench; the full cast riding bikes on the deserted runways at Floyd Bennett Field or crossing (an eerily deserted) Brooklyn Bridge while relating Worrall’s experiences on September 11, 2001. These scenes, all of which were filmed in the very early morning hours, also give a glimpse of the challenges of making this section.
At the same time, Episode 8 was the hardest to follow. This NYC chapter of Worrall’s life is a jumble of non-linear memories given structure by her experiences during and after 9/11, and the static landscapes caught by the camera create a heaviness and inertia that tested my attention. However, in that always evolving relationship between form and content, those visuals were also entirely appropriate to this section that intersects the attacks on the World Trade Center and the city’s rebounding strength in their wake.
After 15 hours of performance, 7 years of creation and touring to 20 countries, Life and Times calls it quits with these final episodes. Footage of the company during the project’s early phases prefaces this last installment, and a growing feeling of exhaustion is just perceptible as new forms are tried, actors leave, new ones join, injuries are sustained, babies are born… As a result, Episode 10, which was planned as a live event, may never be made (similarly, Episode 6, also live, about the “making of,” will probably never be seen in the US). While the company has benefited from the generous support of cultural institutions in Europe, the advance press screening of Episodes 7-9 that I attended was empty save for myself and three others.
Priorities change; new interests come into view. That’s a fairly good summary of Worrall’s story; the actress/sound designer is currently pursuing a rich career in pastry baking, according to a Google search. In sum: “Life happens.” Nevertheless, in its genuine attempt to find dramatic forms for an eminently undramatic story, while redrawing the confines of performance, Nature Theater of Oklahoma has given us a deliberately subversive act of theater that will leave its mark on times to come.