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Review: La MaMa Explores Robert Patrick's Past, Present and Future in HI-FI | WI-FI | SCI-FI

After establishing himself as resident doorman, stage manager and sex slave at the Caffe Cino, the historic Cornelia Street birthplace of Off-Off Broadway and America's gay theatre movement, Robert Patrick summoned up the courage to join the ranks of the venue's resident staff of playwrights (Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen and William Hoffman among them) to begin submitting his own creations to owner Joe Cino. Eventually, the Broadway production of KENNEDY'S CHILDREN would help Patrick gain recognition as one of the significant dramatic voices emerging from New York's downtown scene.

Valois Mickens and Agosto Machado
(Photo: Minji Lee)

Meanwhile, on the Lower East Side, Ellen Stewart was giving theatre space to more emerging voices at La MaMa, E.T.C., which still stands today as a cultural landmark.

But there's no sense of nostalgia for the experimental works of the 1960s and early 80s present when La MaMa hosts co-directors Jason Trucco and Billy Clark's packaging of five short Patrick plays as an evening titled HI-FI |WI-FI | SCI-FI. The striking theme is how much the four decades-old pieces (followed by one world premiere) reflect the world we've grown, or are growing, into, for better or worse.

The evening mounted by La MaMa's multi-media collective, CultureHub, is performed without intermissions in the company's newest E. 4th Street venue, The Downstairs, which is divided into two performance spaces.

When the audience first enters, there's bench seating available for about half of a sold-out house, surrounding a small playing area on three sides. (The rest of the audience stands.)

Before the opening piece, ACTION, begins, actor Agosto Machado is seated at a table with his eyes covered by a contraption that resembles a virtual reality mask. As the play commences, a younger man (John Gutierrez), wearing just his underpants, sits across from him typing furiously. Each man narrates the story of what the other is doing, with dialogue reserved for when their respective woman companions (Valois Mickens and YeeNa Sung) enter. Is the older writer remembering his past or is the younger writer predicting his future?

For the next three pieces, the audience is then led to another space, containing no seats, where they're surrounded by four white screens. For CAMERA OBSCURA, the image of actor Kang Man Hong, directed by Park II Kyu, is projected live from Korea, courtesy of the Seoul Institute of the Arts. The image of Mickens appears on the opposite screen. This 1968 piece envisions a future where people can visually communicate from far across the world, but their conversation is a jumble because of sound delays and technical snafus.

John Gutierrez and YeeNa Sung
(Photo: Minji Lee)

In ALL IN THE MIND, the projected faces of Mickens and Machado carry on a conversation of telepathically communicated words and abstract imagery. The pair also appear on-screen in SIMULTANEUS TRANSMISSIONS, written in reaction to the Vietnam War. They play parents who nurture their son (Gutierrez, live) into hating the right people. He responds with angry, violent acts against an inanimate object. The reality of the damage he does to this non-living thing increases the horrific nature of his actions, allowing the audience to envision an actual human victim.

Viewers are then led back to the previous room where everyone is seated for the new piece, ANYTHING IS PLAUSIBLE. We're attending the 2117 Super State Cultural Conference and as our host (Harold Lehmann) reminds us, we're living in a world where the movie industry has become capable of simulating and inserting performances of deceased actors into classic films they never made. (Marilyn Monroe in "Breakfast At Tiffany's," Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret in "West Side Story").

But now we're to see the latest advancement, the simulation of live theatre performances by long-gone actors. After being told that, as a result of their performances in ALL IN THE MIND, Mickens and Machado went on to illustrious careers, we're now given the opportunity to see what might have happened if, instead, Gutierrez and Sung acted in the piece.

Finely acted with a combination of silliness and thoughtfulness by a winning ensemble, HI-FI |WI-FI | SCI-FI is an enjoyable exploration that effectively combines the work of an adventurous and imaginative playwright at several stages of his life into one unified adventure.

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