by Alana Silber
In today’s political climate, it’s nearly impossible to open a news article, switch on a television, or read a headline without witnessing something that could fill any stomach with dread. From bombings in Syria to incessant mass shootings that litter our news outlets, it is no wonder this era has been called the Age of Fear. Because most of us have accepted this as the media’s natural methodology, very rarely does this societal obsession with reporting and listening to tragedy come into question. However, director JoAnne Akalaitis calls immediate attention to this matter in her new and intellectual show “BAD NEWS! i was there…”.
Upon arriving at N.Y.U Skirball, where the play takes place, the audience is told to follow a member of the cast in one of four colors: red, green, purple, and blue. They are then led down a flight of stairs into the lobby, where the walls are covered with different paper art pieces motivated by Greek mythology and assorted family trees of Greek gods to help those less familiar with the material. Scattered alongside those are modern day newspaper clippings revealing grisly photographs of bodies, hospitals and war zones, serving as a reminder that tragedy did not end with the Greeks.
As the lights dim, a group of eight actors in bright orange vests take their place on the stairwell with urgency. They begin to speak in various languages, at times stopping to sing and move their arms in choreographed fashion. Eventually, when the words switch to English, the audience can tell the crucial line throughout is “I was there…and I will tell you everything.” Once the first song concludes, singing ushers first disguised as audience members collect their individual groups by color and lead them through the auditorium doors to one of four locations either around, on, or behind the stage. Covering the majority of the seats is yellow caution tape, drawing to mind real life crime scenes. Once arrived, the audience is then greeted by two actors (my personal favorites were Katie Lee Hill as Medea and Jenny Ikedea as Thyestes) and a young child, most likely there to symbolize how the endless talk of tragedy impacts youthful minds.
With pointedly eerie and provocative speeches, repetitions, and dialects collaged from classical Greek tragedies and contemporary monologues, the actors trap the audience in a gruesome auditory immersion. It was at once overwhelming, confusing, difficult and intriguing. After each actor completed their own monologue, it was time to move to a new space, with two new actors, two new stories, and two new ways of bearing witness to tragedy. Each change in set was by the original ushers singing and chanting to the simple and original music of Bruce Odland.
Though at times “BAD NEWS! i was there…” attempted to do too many things at once, as if trying hard to prove an already obvious point, and in the end I believe it accomplished many of the goals it set out to do. By the end of the night, more than half of the audience stayed for the talk back/Q and A session with the cast and director; everyone seemed to be buzzing with ideas and questions. Ultimately, I left the theater with my friend discussing tragedy myself, and more specifically how our society propels it forward by being obsessed with having “been there” …and the conversation did not stop until we parted ways. That, to me, is the sign of avant-garde theater done well.
If you would like to read more about “BAD NEWS! i was there…” go to www.nyuskirball.org