THEATER It got cold only once last week in Austin, and that was in the refrigerated beer grotto at the Whole Foods. Otherwise the famously incongruous Texas capital was a sultry pleasure. Arriving midway through the 12-day Fusebox festival (April 16–27) allowed for a concentrated dose of Austin's relaxed mien and fervent tastes, as I took in a slab of what Fusebox's organizers refer to as Free Range Art. Among other things, that meant a program that roamed widely over categories and disciplines as well as points of origin: The festival annually culls its performance-based, visual, conceptual, and food-related projects from local, national, and international artists in roughly equal proportion.
The Bay Area was represented this year by a rousing episode of choreographer Larry/Laura Arrington's highly collaborative experimental "game show," SQUART! (co-produced at Fusebox by Austin-based House of Ia), which had a far-flung mix of local and guest artists putting out completed (often complex and impressive) performances in a matter of a few hours. SQUART! also featured on its luminous panel of celebrity judges the likes of postmodern dance icon Deborah Hay (who by way of one critique led the crowded barroom venue in a chorus of "Don't Fence Me In"). Another intimidatingly dazzling celebrity judge was Christeene, Austin actor Paul Soileau's fierce and brilliant drag alter ego, who would go on to close out the festival on Saturday night with an all-new, ferocious floor show.
Underscoring the Free Range theme in the festival's second week were several remarkable performances that straddled the line between visual art, installation, and conventional theater.
One of these was 33 rpm and a few seconds, by renowned Lebanese theater artists Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh, whose stage comes littered with several past decades worth of communication technology — including the turntable alluded to by the title as well as a fax machine, an answering machine, a cell phone, and stacks of books, all backed by an enormous projection of the principal character's Facebook wall. Notably, the stage remains devoid of any actor (other than a voice heard on the answering machine). Also notably, the principal character, based on an artist and activist in Beirut, is already dead. Only his devices and Facebook account continue to churn with life, as a host of friends, colleagues, and strangers remotely discuss, deliberate over, and variously appropriate his ambiguous suicide. With pointed associations for war-scarred Lebanon's contentious recent history, yet reverberating with a larger state of affairs, this sly and intriguing, multichannel conversation shimmers with our own ghostly and fragmented existence.
Man Ex Machina, meanwhile, had at least half an actor onstage as it delivered a brilliant and chilling multimedia treatise on the evolution of human and machine. Written, directed, and performed (in a stationary but cleverly versatile steam punk cyborg suit with two bare legs poking through) by multifaceted Bulgarian artist Venelin Shurelov of SubHuman Theatre, this riveting "cyber lecture" unfolds as a combination video game, animated documentary (the stunning 3D animations are by Yosif Bozhilov), and post-human minimalist cabaret. Its alternately grim and bracing vision of human evolution comes leavened by a tender humor, but packs enough punch in its trim 50 minutes to leave your head swimming.