MEASURE BACK: There is no time before war, and no future without it

T. Ryder Smith in MEASURE BACK. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

T. Ryder Smith in MEASURE BACK. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

I’m old. It’s definite now. I don’t have to ask the mirror anymore. I was chosen as someone who looks old–though not rich, Jewish, or like a terrorist–by a complete stranger last night during Measure Back, an “immersive” theatre-event that depends heavily on audience participation and manipulation.  Presented jointly by Duke Performances and Manbites Dog Theater, the three-actor show, written by T. Ryder Smith, featuring him,  and directed by him and Christopher McElroen,  plays at Manbites through Sat. Nov. 9.

Perhaps it is my age that made me feel that Measure Back is a shallow thing. It’s about war–its history and its present; its whats, hows and whys, and what provokes us to it. This is hardly a new topic, but it is always laudable when artists and thinkers confront it anew. When they attempt to plumb its depths, we are harrowed and harried past our previous endpoints of thought and feeling, as we’ve seen locally in the past couple of years with Ray Dooley’s performance in An Iliad, and Ellen McLaughlin’s extraordinary Penelope at PlayMakers. Smith also uses The Iliad as source material–although he often seems dismissive of it–but he stays determinedly in the bloody shallows as he attempts to link that ancient tale to modern lives.

The games he, as The Actor, plays with the audience, along with The Actress (Dionne Audain) and The Other One (Caitlin Wells), are surely meant to make the dilemmas that lead to war, and war’s subsequent horror, more real to the audience–to literally force us to confront terrible choices. But, oddly, they have the opposite effect. The Actor often treats the audience members with condescending contempt, and  there are never any painful consequences to the little set-ups, which give way at ADHD speed to something else, or else drag on murkily far past the point one cares to try to understand them. There’s no character we can latch onto, no story through-line, except in a rather esoteric sense. There is plenty of discomfort, beginning with the dismaying moment you walk into the theater and see that all the seats have been replaced with cinderblocks, except for a few folding chairs behind a sign marked “out of order.” There are periods of very loud noise; there’s lots of fake blood and gore and the miming of barbaric tortures, the worst of which is a prolonged rape scene involving a power drill.

But none of this causes any discomfort in the soul–at least, not of the kind that might provoke one to a more careful moral philosophy or a mordant understanding of the great human tragedy called War. The mental discomfort is purely aesthetic; the mourning is for the failure of a valiant effort of Art.

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