BWW Review: Broken Box Mime Theater Highlights the Joys of Subversion in SEE REVERSE
Like poetry, which Plato banned in The Republic on the grounds that poets were liars, mime has always been subversive. "Pantomimus" translates from Greek to "imitating all." It was precisely the act of imitation that perturbed Plato, but not the Romans, for whom mime was a popular art form until the Christian church forbade its practice.
But beyond qualms about mimesis, mime is subversive because it operates in a sphere beyond words, thus circumventing language as well as class barriers. Conventional theater requires that artists and their audiences speak the same language. Not so with mime, which resurfaced in the Renaissance as a vital element of Commedia Dell'Arte.
By the 18th Century, critics began to theorize how mime fit into a larger political and social context; mime became associated with truth-telling over and against official rhetoric. In his seminal Ideas for a Mimic (1786), German professor of moral philosophy Johann Jacob Engel--a rough contemporary of Kant, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Herder, and Johann Hamann--linked mime to larger Idealist theories of the self emphasizing expression and authenticity. If words represented artifice, physical gestures and facial expressions represented nature.
Pantomime shows took place in informal settings across Europe. In Paris, they were relegated to fairgrounds so as not to compete with traditional theater or other forms of high culture, like ballet and opera. Performers were not bound by conventions of dress or speech, reinforcing the sense that mime was "natural" and thus embodied of freedom. In no century, perhaps, were the politics and aesthetics of freedom more closely connected. 1789, after all, was the French Revolution.
These are deep philosophical waters but important to understanding the work of Broken Box Mime Theater, whose mission is threefold: 1) "To activate the imagination of audiences," 2) "to contemporize the art of mime," and 3) "to remind us all of the power of simple storytelling." SEE REVERSE consists of ten individual pieces, which feature some combination of the ensemble's enormously talented performers, whose backgrounds range from theater to opera to poetry: Nick Abeel, Becky Baumwoll, Duane Cooper, Geraldine Dulex, Blake Habermann, David Jenkins, Marissa Molnar, and Matt Zambrano. Surprisingly, not one has formal dance training, which makes the precision of their physical movement all the more remarkable.
The ten pieces in SEE REVERSE are ambitious. Some have quite intricate narratives, not all of whose plots I discerned. "The Good Detective," a film noir whodunit which closes the first act and opens the second, was to me the most obscure. But the show's power doesn't depend upon full comprehension. "The Good Detective" includes three songs of different periods and genres; this sustains one's emotional engagement even in the absence of cognitive grasp: "I Knew a Guy" (Kevin McCleod), "Throwing Snow" (The Hush), "She Wolf in My Heart" (Sergey Cheremisinov). The music in SEE REVERSE, whose selection is a truly collaborative process under the the art direction of Becky Baumwoll, is vital to the storytelling process, as is the light design by Kevin Novinsky.
In the opening piece's first moments, "Plainview Community Players," the audience began to laugh enthusiastically. This continued through the show's final piece, except during the dramatic "Recollect" set to "We Have a Map of the Piano" by Mum and "Automatic," set to "Band Hammer" by Lucky Dragons. The latter, the show's most transparently political piece, features five performers on the floor assembling a gun in unison.
Particularly in a niche genre, the opening night audience of an off-off Broadway show consists largely of friends and family of performers. But even allowing for a sympathetic crowd, the response was extarordinary. A more rapt audience I've rarely witnessed at a show of this size. Boisterous clapping and a standing ovation at the end made SEE REVERSE a uniquely joyful theatergoing experience.
Part of this joy derives, I believe, from the surprise and delight that finely articulated gestures can transmit so much meaning, which is to say, content. In an ethnically and racially polarized world, it's reassuring that people can recognize and identify with common emotions and situations. The identification, of course, is not absolute. To wit, my misunderstanding of the show's penultimate number, "Heartland," skillfully set to "Hey Hey Sunshine" (Hypermagic), "The Moon and Australia, Instrumental (Miracles of Modern Science), and "Ballerina Platform Shoes Set in Sand Remix" (Origamibiro). Miscommunication between a man and a woman was clearly the theme of the piece. But the relationship between the two (and the source of the disconnect) I got wrong. Still, this allegory of meaning touched me.
And in an era of fake news--when those who scream the loudest about fake news are its greatest generators and proponents, e.g. the current occupier of the White House and his flunkies--mime reminds us that human truth exists and more, that it's communicable. That in itself is cause for joy.
The literary critic in me could not help but think of Jacques Derrida's theory of writing in Of Grammatology when trying to account for the particular pleasure of SEE REVERSE. A substantive defense of Derrida (and deconstruction) lies beyond the scope of this review. But two things bear notice. First, mainstream Americans viewed deconstruction as essentially destructive: "They're tearing down our favorite literary works!" This is false.
Contra the history of Western metaphysics from Plato to Rousseau, Derrida argued that, in his 1903 Course in General Linguistics, French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had the relationship between speech and writing entirely wrong. Speech was always regarded as primary and writing as secondary; this made writing derivative and inferior.
It would be hard to overstate, in the history of philosophy and literature, the stakes of claiming that writing comes first, and that if signs are (as Saussure argued) arbitrary, there can be no "natural bond" between a thing and the word or sign used to represent it. The upshot for 20th C critical theory was a foundational questioning of meaning that came too close for comfort to skepticism and/or nihilism.
But Derrida wasn't trying to obliterate the possibility of meaning. And neither, for the practical purposes of reading texts, were the best of his followers, like Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, or J Hillis Miller. To posit the impossibility of "getting out" of language (in this sense, "writing") is not altogether to deny the possibility of meaning in a mundane sense. Obviously, people do communicate, sometimes more successfully than others.
The very title of SEE REVERSE, it seems to me, evokes the reversal of speech and writing at the core of Derrida's philosophy, which was based on a rejection of key binary oppositions ,including inside and outside. In mime, inside and outside are fused. Without recourse to words, the body must do all expressive work. This is also true of dance, but mime--at least as practiced by Broken Box Mime Theater (the winner of three New York Innovative Theater awards, including Outstanding Ensemble, Performance Art, and Movement/Choreography)--has narrative aspirations beyond even the most conceptual interpretive dance. Feminist and race theorists have made us aware that bodies are contested sites of meaning, but count SEE REVERSE as a win for meaning.