BWW Review: Enter the Situation Room with UNEXPLODED ORDNANCES (UXO) at Guthrie's Dowling Studio
The Guthrie's 9th floor experimental black box space, where all tickets are always just $9, is one of the best deals in town. Currently, it hosts a festival called "Get Used To It: A Celebration of Queer Artistry" and the initial offering is a real coup. The famed duo of Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, founders of Split Britches and the feminist/queer performance space WOW Cafe in New York, have brought their intermissionless 90 minute participatory performance piece UNEXPLODED ORDNANCES (UXO) to the Twin Cities.
Nobody is better at using theater as a tool to foster community conversation and engagement with big issues than these two. They've honed their craft over decades of work, often in collaboration with others, both professional artists and citizens at large. They incorporate myriad theater styles, usually eschewing naturalism for something more stylized and more participatory.
UXO is military shorthand for landmines and other potentially explosive buried items; here, it references both weaponry and our hidden desires.
Both performers were already on stage when the audience entered. Shaw was dressed as a general sitting at a computer console outside a circle of table and chairs, where Weaver sat, impassively, dressed in a navy blue suit. There was a red phone on one of the tables, and all was hit with harsh white top light. Three large projection screens showed black and white images of world maps with outlines of planes moving across them; beeping sounds were continuous. Clearly we had entered a situation room at a time of potential crisis.
UXO is In the spirit of Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable 1964 film DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, which it references both literally and visually. There's a clock counting down the minutes remaining before nuclear annihilation--and the end of the show.
In direct address to the audience, fully lit, Weaver acknowledged our location as on Dakota land. She recounted the history of this place, on the banks of the Mississippi, where forest gave way to grain elevators, and, over time, to a parking lot owned by the Minnesota Twins, which was then sold to the Guthrie. A series of carefully calibrated requests on her part led to questions and before we knew it she'd identified the ten oldest people in the audience and invited us to sit around the onstage table as a Council of Elders.
Yes, I was in that group, and spent the rest of the show on stage. Thus I can't entirely judge how well the show works for those still in the audience. But I will tell you that from where I sat the next hour was engaging, humane and oddly uplifiting. Weaver guided a conversation among strangers, meeting our input with genuine attention. I am usually quite allergic to audience participation in theater since too often it subjects some poor soul to ventriloquism at best and ridicule at worst. This was not like that at all.
Weaver (as Mr. Madam President) and Shaw (as the General) were both working off written scripts for the segments that did not involve the Elders directly. This may be compensation for the fact that Weaver suffered a stroke in 2011--UXO in the brain? There are some memorable lines: "we must be careful with our curiosities" and "You trip on it: the thing you thought you wanted...."
Images from 'duck and cover' training films, from Doctor Strangelove, and from bomb blasts played on the large screens above us. The red phone rang with messages for the General or the President more than once. The President occasionally collapsed across the table or rolled over it and crawled under it. What this movement intended I cannot say; for me, it was the least meaningful part of the performance. It seemed to keep us all a little off balance, aware that we were in some sort of alternative world to the one we move through habitually.
My respect for the skill of these two activist performers is real. They have designed an interactive experience that invites people to talk about real but unspoken hazards without making it a grim, depressing, academic exercise. Did we solve anything? No. Did we break our silence, and build a little courage to talk about difficult but vital, personal matters? I think so. That's no small achievement.
UXO runs in the Dowling Studio through February 10. The next two productions in this "Celebration of Queer Artistry" run for just a few performances each. Martha Graham Cracker's LASHED BUT NOT LEASHED occupies the space February 14-16. It is followed by Ryan J. Haddad's HI, ARE YOU SINGLE? from February 21-24.