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The Evil of Banality 

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Coffee With David Hauptschein and Joseph Fosco

at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre, through December 16

Jurua

at Randolph Street Gallery, through December 6

By Justin Hayford

Each year on the first day of class I tell my students, "Enthusiasm is not a sin." My admonition falls primarily on deaf ears. Ten weeks later they've proved themselves to be bright, engaged, articulate, thoughtful--but, with few exceptions, they seem to have sawdust in their veins. They almost never allow themselves to display any passion stronger than bemusement. The expression of any idiosyncratic personality trait seems off-limits. The majority of them meld into a featureless mass of good behavior.

Of course, our educational system largely rewards docility and uniformity. Foucault would argue that that system--as well as the penal, religious, and medical establishments--has been designed to normalize those who pass through it. Neil Postman would argue that the ubiquity of television, enforcing a standard of generic interchangeability with its daily intrusions into our living rooms, has rendered us terminally disengaged.

Postman and Foucault can duke it out in the afterlife. What I know is that I couldn't stop thinking about my students during Coffee With David Hauptschein and Joseph Fosco, a two-hour kaffeeklatsch cum talk show that's at once the blandest thing I've seen onstage in years and a sobering critique of the American love affair with insipidity.

Hauptschein is perhaps best known for his "found text" performances, in which he invites people to read letters or diary entries onstage. Earlier this year he teamed up with WBEZ's Ira Glass to broadcast stories pulled from the Web. Now he's teamed up with composer and performance artist Joseph Fosco to put onstage what they call a "nonvirtual chat room." The two sit with anyone from the audience who cares to join them; on opening night that number ranged between 10 and 15. Fosco pulls a series of discussion topics from a hat, some written by the artists, some solicited from audience members before the show. Once the topic is announced, people discuss it until Hauptschein's egg timer goes off. Then it's on to the next topic.

Just before last year's Democratic National Convention, ImprovOlympic staged a similar event, with performers Paul Krassner, Aaron Freeman, Del Close, and Jeff Dorchen sitting around talking. With these bold, unapologetic people onstage, the evening soared. But Coffee featured a dozen or so apprehensive, unenthusiastic audience members offering for the most part facile, unassailable assertions: all marriages involve sacrifice, corporate-franchise coffee shops are boring, people need to think for themselves. By comparison the self-described pagan Del Close, delighting in the Irish "troubles" because monotheists are killing monotheists, looked like an absolute freak.

But then Hauptschein and Fosco aren't out to entertain--or at least they shouldn't be. Like the subversively mundane performances of Men of the World, Coffee is more conceptual event than show. In a world of seductive, high-tech virtual chat rooms that exemplify the increasing simulization of American culture, Coffee seems to ask: can the low-tech, low-budget "authentic" chat room still engage us? Are we more interesting to one another when hiding behind catchy ten-letter names and appearing only as type on a screen?

Based upon the opening night of Coffee, the answer is a resounding yes--in large part because the Oprah-fication of our culture has rendered passionate, unorthodox opinion off the Web unlikely. Almost everyone addressing such questions as "How do you reinvent yourself?" "Which is better, embarrassment or death?" and "How do you test your courage?" in Coffee clung tenaciously to middle-of-the-road pop psychology or fuzzily remembered news clips, when not tossing off Letterman-esque ironic quips. The notable exceptions were Hauptschein and Fosco themselves--who after all have a stake in spicing up the proceedings--and Mary-Arrchie director Richard Cotovsky, a man whose heretical personality is uncontainable. But everyone else resembled the sitcom characters who bring in millions of advertising dollars to the networks, forgettable and interchangeable.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the participants are in the unenviable position of having to discuss topics of no interest to them (which isn't a problem if you view Coffee as a critique of its own television-inspired interview format). It seemed as though half of the announced topics were greeted with collective groans. In the interest of keeping things moving, Hauptschein sometimes set off his egg timer long before its five minutes had elapsed. But this attempt to keep things "interesting" gave the show a choppy, rushed feeling akin to the evening news. The proceedings seemed overdirected, more a staged attempt at a conversation than a true discussion.

But then what else could Coffee be? A simulation of a simulation, it's a stilted, unnatural forum for the most natural of human interactions. Participants are invited to "open up," to fling themselves beyond the breakwaters of social niceties, yet they know they're under the inhibiting scrutiny of silent voyeurs. Hauptschein and Fosco create a Foucauldian mini force field of surveillance, the potential transgressors policed by the unwavering gaze of the faceless crowd. An ingenious critique of our oppressively normalizing culture, Coffee succeeds because it's set up to fail.

It seems that writer-performer-director Pablo Helguera wants to offer his own cultural critique in his new performance piece Jurua. According to press materials, the show "explores themes like desire, hope, and inspiration, as well as being a 'contemporary eulogy' of the American Dream as we knew it." But during its sketchy 45 minutes, Jurua merely glides over the surface of these issues, like an extended preview of a show Helguera has yet to write.

The piece is set in 1926 in an imaginary Amazon jungle, where filmmaker Fernando Ocampo and his young starlet Violet Perkins have come to create a cinematic masterpiece about mermaids. In truth, the film is a front for producer Sidney Harrison's scheme to set up a shrunken-head factory. Helguera tries to give the show a hypnotic edge, with 16th-century explorer Francisco de Orellana appearing now and again to reminisce about his crew's mesmerizing encounters with mermaids. But as intriguing as these elements may be, Helguera's piece lacks thematic and stylistic unity. Scenes butt up against each other without much sense of flow or escalation. Helguera, who also directs, relies upon conventional realistic acting, yet his scenes rarely move beyond broad, emblematic statements. Worse, the actors seem perpetually stranded onstage, often standing in a line or fidgeting noncommittally.

Helguera calls Jurua a "playformance," meaning a play written by a performance artist. Rather than an unconventional artistic hybrid, however, Jurua is a wholly conventional play without much theatrical rigor. Helguera has outlined a promising story; now all he has to do is tell it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Coffee with David Hauptschein and Joseph Fosco photo by Daniel Guidara; Jurua photo by Joe Zlolkowski.

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