After witnessing several iterations of Andrew Schneider’s groundbreaking 2015 work YOUARENOWHERE, I found myself describing his work to others as ‘techno-clown.’ That show featured Schneider alone onstage, and while there was a lot of talking in it – about relativity, about loneliness – what stuck out most vividly from the work was Schneider’s ability to work both with and against his technology, staging battle with a strip of LED lights, a light bulb that would occasionally plummet from the ceiling, and a hanging picture frame that Schneider would occasionally try to put his head through (with terrifying audio/visual results). More so, Schneider himself seemed somehow part machine, standing before us shirtless with mic packs strapped to both arms, his lavaliere microphone visible on his face. What made YOUARENOWHERE feel like a clown show (of the post-modern European variety, of course) was the show’s ability to make us empathize with Schneider through his constant intentional struggle with the media surrounding him. Through a series of failures accented by jarring audio glitches and sudden flashes of light and subsequent darkness, we stayed with him – and as a result, the work felt funny, terrifying, and totally unique; a performance perfectly balanced between external technology and internal chaos.
It’s tempting to try to view Schneider’s current work, After, playing at the Public Theater through January 14th as part of the 2018 Under the Radar lineup, through a similar lens. After all, the show itself directly positions us to do so. In its opening moment, we encounter Schneider as though we just left him, laying on the floor, shirtless, with mic-packed arms, his familiar light bulb on a wire ascending and then flashing out, leaving audience and performer back in a darkness that is soon to become familiar. A voice is heard in the darkness – a female voice. The voice says (something like) “This is not that. This is something else.”
If not that though, then what? How to articulate that which After is after? Having spent the full 80 minutes with the work (which felt substantially longer, perhaps because of a durational quality that frequently leaves the audience on the outside of the show), I’m still in the dark. Specifically, most memorably, I’m lingering with the dark period that makes up the middle section of After, which holds the position of a second act (of what I’m arguing is a three-act structure, although there are no breaks) for the performance.
The opening act, after that exhilarating first moment of rediscovery, introduces us to fellow performer Alicia ayo-Ohs, who speaks to/at the audience at length before Schneider is re-introduced to the overall mix. Both speak constantly through microphones, their voices delivered to us disembodied, in audio close-up. There is an extended sequence of cinematic quick cuts, wherein the light and audio cut out hard, several seconds of total silence pass, and then the lights come up to reveal performers and stage objects in a new configuration, presumably a different moment in time and (maybe?) space. This is cool, for awhile, but when returned to again and again it slips into derivative territory. It’s also difficult to figure out why it is happening.
The content of the show seems to be focused on the moment of – or around – death; the point at which one’s consciousness is flickering through a series of recollections before completely losing itself, and so there’s an argument to be made that this constant barrage of short jump-cut scenes is an audio-visual immersion in the sensorial death throes of the mind, random synapses sending useless information back and forth: Remember this? Remember this? It’s never made clear who is experiencing what, and the presence of two bodies onstage – often in dialogue that is cut off before we can understand its context – suggests a relationship of some sort, although After defiantly avoids defining that relationship.
And then the darkness. Act Two plunges us into a near-total blackout that lasts for what seems like forever, taunts us with just enough occasional ambient light to make out what appears to be – at one point – a body running in super-slow motion across the stage, the light just dim enough to make it feel like hallucination. We’re immersed in a soundscape filled with buzzing digital feedback and whisperings of human voices somewhere deep in the mix. Whether you close your eyes or open them matters little. It’s a freeing experience that startles the senses, similar to wandering through a dark forest and reaching out, in the dark, for a tree that you expect to be there but is not.
This darkness seems like the be-all and the end-all. If it is about, well, after – this is where many of us expect to find ourselves, I think. In darkness with no end that is the end.
But, confusingly, jarringly, it isn’t. Act Three follows. The lights and sound return. Schneider is back, as is ayo-Ohs. Now there are others, standing in for Schneider and ayo-Ohs, speaking in their voices (a neat trick accomplished by lip-syncing to voice-over, probably?) A commentary on identity? It’s hard to tell. There are rooms full of people, who vanish into the darkness of the next jump-cut. Yeah, we’re back to jump-cuts again. And not just a few; there’s a good portion of show still to come, but without clarity, and more problematically, with no justification for the continued torrent of words, words, words – many of them describing the possibilities of this metaphysical ‘after’ moment, but in a way that feels like you’re cornered by a junior majoring in Philosophy who has crashed a grad party, the content of the words not suggestive of anything other than the sound of another’s voice, speaking to be heard, not understood.
In YOUARENOWHERE, extensive use of technology justified its existence by acting as deterrent, forcing us (the audience) into a shotgun wedding-type relationship with the performer. Conversely, in After – despite its extraordinary technical precision and painstakingly rendered design – there’s no such tension to be mined, either between the message and the media, nor between the characters presented onstage. Even if this dramatic absence is intentional – which one hopes it is, given how prominent the feeling is, and given the occasional self-conscious asides from aya-Ohs (‘This is going to end,” she promises somewhere in the middle) – it’s unable to locate its position and function in the work, instead washing over the audience and infusing us with its emptiness. Eventually, with no clear position to watch from, we commit instead to waiting for clarity that never comes.
After runs to January 14 in Under the Radar. More production info can be found here.