I was lounging at an oversized library desk, perusing the papers strewn about – fragments of Gatz (The Great Gatsby), The Select (The Sun Also Rises) and The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1978) – when Mike Iveson plopped down behind me. I swiveled around, perching my left arm over the back of the chair, and leaned back for the monologue that was sure to follow. Iveson locked eyes with me, only occasionally peering down into his floppy paperback book for his lines. He began:
She was a slender, small-breasted girl with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity of a wan, charming discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before.
How uncanny. Was this monologue about me? Fitzgerald seamlessly gave way to Hemingway, and Iveson’s commitment to deliver this monologue directly to me increased with each line. However self-conscious, I was wholly enraptured by the performance – and, in fact, had become a tacit part of the show myself. Mike Iveson was reading the text, and the text seemed to be reading me.
Such glowing moments make Elevator Repair Service’s experimental installation Shuffle a worthwhile experiment in the inaugural BEAT Festival, which celebrates Brooklyn’s Emerging Artists in Theater. ERS – with Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin – mashes up the texts of their recent trilogy of acclaimed literary adaptations in an improvisatory event in the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. While a machine scrolls through the interlocking texts, the performers read their lines off iPhones cleverly housed in gutted paperbacks. The scripts are simultaneously projected onto the walls and several screens throughout the space, and audience members are encouraged to mingle with the performers a la Sleep No More. Improvisation is a challenge with an ever-shifting array of fragmented texts and the actors’ noses frequently buried in the books, but Shuffle is certainly a thought provoking new piece.
Most of Shuffle is utterly cacophonous; the phrases occasionally fly across the screens too quickly for the performers to handle, and some actors are visibly less comfortable with improvisation than others. (Can you – and should you – commit to a character choice when your “character” is a series of decidedly discontinuous bits?) The show is set up in four 22-minute cycles with a somewhat awkward, dead break between each performance round. The reading room is littered with John Collins’ directing diagrams and clippings from the novels to keep the audience entertained, but most audience members opt to whip out their own iPhones for a bit of web browsing during these respites: a meta moment, adding another layer of texts to the proceedings.
The actors’ choices became more bold as the opening night’s show progressed, and sensational moments began to sync up in the textual algorithm. Scattered across the theatrical space, the actors rapidly recited a list of nouns, an array of sentences beginning with “She was,” and a series of “Why?” and “Because.” Actors played more with vocal inflections and the acoustics of the library, particularly an empty and echoey hallway. Actors grew more comfortable engaging with their audience, spontaneously directing lines – and sometimes entire monologues – at their onlookers.
At a certain point in the second cycle, I sat down at a desk, picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby, and began reading silently, simply letting the other texts jostle around me. While ERS’s Gatz offered the experience of wholly disappearing into a work of literature and shutting off the outside world, Shuffle offered the aural sensation of intertextuality; my attention phased in and out as I tapped into the varied conversations around the room. I found a certain pleasure in the literary bustle, although another audience member simply confessed, “I don’t get it.”
Shuffle is scattershot, to be sure: variously taking shape and falling apart before your very eyes – and, even more importantly, your ears. Yet I walked out of the Brooklyn Public Library tonight unable to stop thinking about what I had experienced, particularly those unexpected and uncanny moments of synchronicity between texts, as well as between performers and audience members. Give everyone in the audience a glass of champagne and ERS may really kick off a literary party. Right now, the concept intrigues more than the execution – but Elevator Repair Service is to be commended for this playful, participatory experiment.