Easily the most contentious performance I’ve witnessed since Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment—which played the same house last March—EMPIRE (Art & Politics), at the MCA Stage October 2 and 3, has stewed restlessly in the minds of everyone I know who’s seen it. Reductively assessed, it’s a snowballing extrapolation of two early lines: In voiceover while we take in four opening tableaux—two of which are a bare-breasted woman hoisting a French flag and a couple playing cards*—actor Davis Freeman thunders, “What’s the secret behind this card game? What lies are being told that will never make it into our history books?” Moments later, that couple, dressed in gorgeous Napoleonic era costumes by Sabine Debonnets and Odile Hautemulle, ends their game, the woman victorious.
“I won,” she says contentedly, putting down her hand. “Now: What shall it be?”
The remaining hour and a half of European performance collective Superamas’s latest show suggests that this woman, like the winner of any battle, epic or tiny, can choose anything she wants.
Through cinematic use of lighting and sound effects, a deranged and slapstick, Cliffs Notes reenactment of the Battle of Aspern-Essling follows. In one short scene, a black soldier is humiliated with racist jokes (his captors dance around like monkeys), then executed by firing squad. Another begins with a torrid but consensual three-way tryst which, when interrupted, becomes a hideously cartoonish pair of rapes. Later, all the soldiers die, one by one, until the stage is littered with bodies. (Some of this is soundtracked with Wagner and Offenbach, some of it by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Michael Jackson). Enter a movie camera on a motorized dolly, recording the carnage with a floodlight to Patti Smith’s cover of “Pastime Paradise.”
It’s a film set, you see, and the actors soon reappear, freshened up in elegant contemporary clothes (also gorgeous, by Alix Eynaudi) to mingle, and celebrate the production with some sabered Champagne at a party for unappealing people. One is a naïve, privileged college student and daughter of the host, a smug and self-satisfied, flirtatious French ambassador named Philippe Dupraz. Innocuous tropical lounge music plays, what you hear in the lobby of a W Hotel, but the fête’s mood is threatened when a token guest, a political refugee, recounts terrible tales of the Somali turmoil that keeps him from his homeland and what remains of his family. The gravity of his story is hastily ignored, or whitewashed by the others’ transparent lack of ability (and willingness) to relate.
Giant light fixtures, white globes suggesting planets given monochromatic paint jobs, hover motionless over the action. The camera remains always, flanked by a sound technician wielding a boom microphone. (Three or four conversations might happen simultaneously, but only one at a time is chosen for the record. What lies are being told that will never make it into our history books? Also, this skeleton camera crew can interact with Freeman’s American character while the rest of the cast is caught in a freeze frame. In more than one respect, a quote by David Lynch does not come from nowhere, and there’s a healthy splash of Cronenberg in there, too.)
EMPIRE is vertiginously layered, drunk on a cocktail of theatrical conventions and blurred intersections of approaches to performance. And it’ll tell you as much, straight up: One actor plays Superamas’s director—though in reality it’s a collective—as a coke-nosed, horny, gay Belgian (with a Hitleresque haircut thrown into boldface during a shrieking defense of the universality of EMPIRE’s message). He lectures Dupraz on modes of representation and the jeux de friction between stage and audience that’s as much his priority as is putting the moves on Ibrahim, one of his actors who, though conspicuous proof of pan-cultural desire, is not, in fact, named Abraham. Dupraz responds by mocking Belgians—and Quebecers, too, while he’s tipsy and on a roll. “‘What is universal?’ is more a political question than an artistic one,” we’re told. No interaction isn’t loaded with assumptions of superiority and assertions of power, and each ends with the same implied coupon gifted one victor. “I won. Now: What shall it be?”
Projected video whisks us to a not-dissimilar party at the Festival d’Avignon, where a plan is hatched to interview Samira Makhmalbaf in Afghanistan. The ensuing conversation with the Iranian filmmaker, in an empty railway tunnel, contains the show’s only earnest dialogue, despite Superamas’s journey there the cheekiest portrayal of them as, to quote Jeroen Peeters’s dense but informative essay The Empire of Spectators, used as a program note, “cowboys driven by an exotic and pornographic desire for the ‘real.’ ”
It even appears, at first, to be an actual documentary. It isn’t.
EMPIRE begs serious questions using methods that preclude your answering them from outside the particulars of your own (likely fortunate) circumstances. Does the intentional flatness of many of its scenes sufficiently forgive the treatment of women within those scenes? (I recently ran across Alison Willmore’s essay on The Social Network—which I think is apt—and find myself mulling over whether EMPIRE belongs in a similar category for similar reasons, the hetero male hegemony of geopolitics standing in for Harvard’s tech geek circles and jock-run final clubs.) Is the implied self-indictment in EMPIRE’s script—the name Superamas is used onstage as well as on our tickets—a preemptive strike against accusations of blithe play with representations of reality and perception in a show ostensibly condemning those who can afford the luxury of not knowing from experience what a rocket-propelled grenade can do to a dozen bodies at once? It’s undeniably topical, sure, but is it topical in a way that buttresses the part of it that carries the tone of a manifesto, or in a way that cuts the two centuries of its scope down to a perishable window of relevance?
It’s been three days and, still, I don’t know. I will say that the performance’s closing aria of light and sound design (props to Peter Connelly, Christophe Demarte and stage manager Martin Schwab) could, presented alone, comprise its own performance, warranting its own review. Opinions of their content and tone aside, Superamas have built an extraordinarily polished and nuanced stage environment. While EMPIRE may not entirely earn its aggression in retrospect, it deserves credit for being brave and deliberate about each moment. I wish I could see it again; if I did, what would it be?
*Superamas, for reasons known only to it, doesn’t wish to make clear which members of its cast play which characters (though I did ask).