November 9 to 12, 2011
Newyorkland is a challenge. It is a challenge to describe, a challenge to watch, no doubt a challenge to perform and most certainly a challenge to review.
The performance, and please note this is not a play but rather an “assemblage”, employs almost every multi-media and staged technique to address the subject of police work in 1970’s New York. There is theatrical monologue, film, rap, poetry, music, lighting, silent movement and an industrial set that all work towards painting a picture of the bleak and sometimes desperate realities of street cops struggling with the lives and careers they’ve chosen.
This world premiere piece is the latest work by the New York based theatre company Temporary Distortion, who are known and lauded for their interweaving of theater and cinema to bring audiences a multi-dimensional experience. And while the performance most certainly has many dimensions, the overwhelming feeling is that the sum of its parts is nowhere near greater than the whole of the offering. In other words, parts of this performance work extremely well and many parts fall flat.
Newyorkland presents the first person confessionals of 4 New York Cops who describe the toll that police work has taken on their lives. These nameless characters talk of how “the job” has robbed them of their dreams and pride. One cop, through a film segment, talks about how he came to serve as a matter of principle and higher calling only to find out that the public disdains the police and ridicules him behind his back. Another speaks through a poetry segment about how he cannot sleep anymore or maintain his faith in humanity after what he has witnessed. One sits alone on the stage and phones his mother to tell her everything is ok, only to digress into a deadened emotional description of how the life has changed him. Perhaps the most jarring scene with the most forceful impact comes with the film depiction of a domestic take-down of a man holding his wife hostage at gunpoint. The offender points the gun at his own head, then at his wife’s head, then at the cops trying to talk him down. Eventually one cop tackles him and wrestles he gun away. Instead of the glamorous Hollywood ending we are used to seeing, we are shown the post-drama anxiety and shock the heroic cop suffers in the aftermath.
Each one of these anecdotes are worthwhile on their own, but unfortunately get lessened by the totality of the spectacle. Sounds echoes, lights flash, film flashes incessantly and the constant drone of the police radio can be heard in the background during most of the play. I appreciate that this cacophony is meant to illustrate the sensory overload the characters experience, but it gets in the way of the audience understanding what is being said and communicated. More than once I had to strain to understand what a character was saying over the din and often found myself giving up. And then even when the din went quiet for a moment, the over produced sound of the character’s microphones made following their dialogue a headache with unfortunately little payoff.
Even the cool set with its depiction of 3 separate police station offices/Mad Max industrial decor spaces had its drawbacks. The design was fun to look at but was so difficult to light that often I found I had no idea which cop was talking or who I should be relating to. I suppose since none of them had names and each were representative of a larger issue, figuring out which one was talking really didn’t matter. Still I would have liked to have had better lighting direction to help me follow the flow of the performance.
I fared much better with the film portion of the performance. Not only was the narrative clearer in these moments, but they were the most compelling moments. Most everything stimulating that was said or done in this performance was done in film. It’s as though the on stage elements shied away from the challenging or emotional moments of the play and instead let the film do the talking. And while the film segments were well done, I would have preferred more engaging moments on the stage to balance this out.
So back to why this performance was challenging. To describe, Newyorkland is neither a film or a poetry reading or a play per se, but rather a mish-mash of all these things without a comprehensive gelling of any of them. To watch, Newyorkland demanded much from the totality of its audience’s creative senses without satisfying them equally. To review, Newyorkland had some brilliant moments burdened with the weight of an overwrought idea trying to be cleverly all things within too many mediums.
For the guys – Tough guys have it tough – even 1970’s NYC police. If you can get past the heavy handed artsy element, you’ll like the inside track on what the cops are really thinking as they walk the beat. SEE IT
For the girls – Even with the veil pulled on the tough guy veneer, you may not find the subject matter compelling. SKIP IT
For the occasional audience – No story line…too many mediums. Nothing for you here, move along. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – The good moments are very good. Are they worth the entire experience? Not convinced. MAYBE SEE IT