One of the things we learn about the aquatic bird that has given rise to this production is that its name comes either from the Scandinavian or Old English words lum and lumme for awkward, clumsy and lame. This disjointedness seems to have been Witness Relocation’s intention for their 60-minute meditation on time, American life, muon particles, life as acting and questions like: “which of you really knows who I am?”
We begin with Robert M. Johanson giving us a fast-paced lecture on pop science in front of a troupe of dancers while videos play behind. It is hard to know where to look and how each of the three elements are related. Later, Johanson calls to backstage: “We put stuff together, and it works, right Dan?”, and the audience are relieved to know that the production is in on it, and that the randomness of the last 30 minutes has been intentional. The problem is that this randomness is not pushed far enough to be interesting. The Loon lands in an uncomfortable middle between total unpredictability and a consistent narrative – there are just enough connections within and between parts of the play to make you feel there is a structure, but you are denied an understanding of what it might be.
One thread through the play is Dan Safer and Johanson sharing with us their exploration of American life. A sat nav announces directions to Cambridge, MA in between scenes, Johanson sometimes talks to papier-mâché masks of an all-American wife and son and one of the performers spends some time describing her New York apartment. But we are left in the dark about what we are meant to take from this. There is something of individual isolation, and of the impossibility of true connection, but it is not fully realised.
The play attempts to push this further in its constant breaking with form. Johanson reveals that we can’t trust what he’s saying, that he’s getting lines from his earpiece, and that we can talk if we want to – “it won’t ruin the show.” It seems that the function of this is to bring us together – to recognise that we are all aware of the same illusion. But, no one does talk after Johanson allows us to, and the engagement with metatheatre is tired and a little contrived.
Johanson solidly performs a difficult role – one that is free from real relationships with anyone else on stage and requires him to act in unclear and undefined situations. He endears himself to the audience with a couple of well-timed jokes and a majestic rendition of the voices of the loon. There are also some nice ideas for choreography – the best one being a sequence of different ways people sit while watching TV, and a surprising and hilarious avian finale.
The Loon suffers from not committing itself to a full exploration of any of its ideas. It is based on the work of Erving Goffman, ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson, an educational recording of loon cries and party games but I learnt and understood little of these sources, or of what Witness Relocation draws from them. A play about birds, or about awkwardness, or the theatricality of life or the home could be brilliant. The Loon, in an attempt to do all of that and more, is an unsatisfying mix.