It’s sometime in the near future, and a tax has been levied on any consumption of energy for artistic purposes. So in order to keep the lights on, amateur documentarian Victor Frange’s small company of fit, dedicated, socially committed actors use human energy to generate electricity, via a treadmill, stationary bike, and dance breaks. The play they’re aiming to present is Georg Kaiser’s Gas I. To be more precise, in fact they are attempting to recreate, from a sheaf of notes found in an attic, the experimental adaptation of Gas that Victor’s late uncle Terry had been working on with his small troupe of fit, dedicated, socially committed actors in the late 1960s before most of the troupe perished in a fire, along with their dreams and hopes for the work itself. That troupe — called “The Generator Generation,” if I recall correctly — had also planned to generate its own electricity; not, however, in order to evade taxation but out of the same idealistic impulses that also drove their improvisational, collaborative, free-love, anti-materialist reworking of Kaiser’s play — which, itself, was (in 1918) a radically anti-realist experiment in Expressionism that offered a scathing critique of industrial automation and mass production and its contribution to war, social misery, and alienation (the fourth act, as Victor’s actors complain, is a series of long, excruciatingly dull monologues by workers about how their individual body parts work in concert with the factory machinery).
As Victor Frange Presents GAS shifts between these three generations of idealistic theater artists, all grappling — in vastly different historical moments — with the dilemmas posed by our insatiable appetite for energy, the production (co-created and directed by Sarah Krohn) shifts (delightfully, vaudevillianly) between registers of speech and style, from documentary-style interview, to full-blown Expressionist angsting, to confessional address to the audience, to private conversations among the actors themselves, to an instantly produced superhero film. All of this is punctuated at regular intervals by the physical activity (dance break, bicycle ride, water churn) needed to recharge the batteries that power the theater’s light, sound, video, and (all too feeble) air conditioning. Moreover, the interplay between the three variations of Kaiser’s play is complicated and deepened by the dizzying layers of repetition and borrowings that playwright Dan O’Neil has woven into his narrative re-working. For example, the gas explosion that leads to the downfall of Kaiser’s idealistic billionaire protagonist is echoed by the fire that destroys “The Generator Generation’s” idealistic enterprise (which coincides with the first moon landing, no less!), and the improvisational “prompts” used by Terry Frange’s sixties troupe to generate material for their adaptation are upgraded and recycled by Victor Frange’s fictional near-future troupe, while at the same time our present-day team of actors has apparently also worked from prompts and improv games to generate their own dialogue and interaction with both the “real” & fictional source material (i.e., Gas & the “found archive” from Terry’s troupe). Indeed, the use (and re-use) of life “material” as artistic material is a major thematic thread of this evening in the theater, at every level: just as the actors’ own life energy is (putatively) transformed into the electrical current that lights the lights, so are stories, experiences, and material objects reused and recycled into the artistic impulses that might fuel understanding, and, in the best of worlds, action, on the part of the audience. Krohn & O’Neil never let us forget that theater art-making is a matter of both mind and matter, and in staging a continual back and forth between dreams that matter, and the vibrant matter needed to realize those dreams, they challenge us to come to grips with what a sustainable relationship to a resource-finite world might look like.
The ensemble of actors works the schizophrenic, ironic, and at times ridiculous tone of the production well. Ben Mehl is compelling as the strangely nervous, awkward Victor Frange, and the troupe of actors (Ellen Adair, Lauren Blumenfeld, Alex Herrald, Nick Lehane, and Briana Pozner) play the shifts in time, space, and genre with subtlety and precision.
I’ve let you get this far without giving full disclosure: Victor Frange Presents GAS is a collaboration involving many former students from the CMU School of Drama, and they do their alma mater proud here. Krohn, O’Neill, and Lehane are all recent alums; in addition, the show is brilliantly designed by several alums (and one current student): Patrick J. Rizzotti & Bryce Cutler (set); Erik T. Lawson (sound & original music); and Bart Cortright (video). The Tatler was crazy enough to megabus it over to NYC to see this show; you should be crazy enough to do the same if you can. But don’t wait too long: the show closes Aug. 31.