Right as I entered the Experimental Theater, a small space within the ever-essential Abrons Arts Center, a performer stepped forward to address us early arrivals. “We invite you come lie down on the grass,” he said serenely, indicating the fake grass covering the stage. At most subscriber houses across New York, such an invitation would likely be met with blank stares. But as this was a Friday matinee kicking off the American Realness festival, the group was a little more open-minded. We lay down and were led in a meditation exercise which, in all sincerity, was exactly what I needed. Returning to my seat in a semi-serene state, I wondered if all theater shouldn’t start off this way.
Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble are not as precious as this exercise (or their name) might suggest. Their current Art of Luv series is a ritualistic celebration of banal modern media. Each piece pays elaborate worship to some routine internet phenomenon. In The Art of Luv (Part 5): Swipe Right/ROKÉ Cupid, which I saw at the Bushwick Starr in 2017, the focus was internet dating. American Realness now kicks off their 2019 festival with The Art of Luv (Part 6): Awesome Grotto!, which centers around a ‘haul video’ – a recording, posted online, of someone discussing items they recently purchased.
Royal Osiris have obsessively recreated a quickly deleted Labor Day 2013 ‘haul video,’ which begins the show. (So they say, at least – we can’t prove they didn’t invent the video entirely.) The first two-thirds of the show have tremendous fun paying tribute to this video, which is fascinating in its utter blandness. The intensity of Royal Osiris’ devotion contrasts hilariously with the video’s total lack of depth. Expert shadow puppetry is used to play out imagined backstories for items in the video. The worshippers focus most on a Bobby Flay Pizza Wheel which, they explain, no longer exists in stores or online. The pizza wheel takes on a mystical status as an object which, while present in this scripture, no longer exists on our human plane. It’s both incredibly funny and strangely melancholy.
Where Royal Osiris struggle is shifting from this wacky tone to a deeper investigation. (I recall Swipe Right/ROKÉ Cupid suffering from a similar problem.) In its final third, Awesome Grotto! sees the worshippers turning a more critical eye towards their Godhead. Two lead members of the ensemble deliver monologues which, while still affectionate, critique the woman’s vapidness. That analysis is mixed in with personal confessions from the worshipper’s own lives. These monologues are engaging, but the observations are not too surprising. The straight-faced seriousness of this final section proves a harsh left-turn. I felt the loss of the piece’s playful sense of humor.
I should be honest. Though I did lie down on the stage and join the pre-show meditation ritual, I did not complete it. After six or seven minutes I grew antsy, and chose to return to my seat early. It is to the credit of Royal Osiris that I felt entirely comfortable doing this. Their work still feels incomplete, but it casts a particular spell in a room: one of serene calm, and total non-judgment. We could all use a little more of that.