The developmental stages of childhood are well-documented by science, feared and anticipated by every parent: a one-year old walks, a two-year old says no, a three-year old uses the potty, a 12-year old hits puberty, a 15-year old is insufferable, and then hopefully 18 comes quickly and we don’t have to worry about what’s around the bend anymore. We tend to think “growth” stops with adulthood and, in our youth culture, it seems assumed that, past our twenties, we begin an embarrassing decline into old age. But those are just the kind of received ideas that set the Gob Squad thinking, so the British-German collective airs them out in Before Your Very Eyes, a celebration of youth, yes, but also a call to arms against, not aging, but apathy.
We might expect the “Gobs” – who are now well past their twenties – to skewer the topic with their characteristic stage charisma, but in Before Your Very Eyes, they take a back seat to a cast of seven pre-teens and teens. These kids, named Charlotte, Rose, Meghan, Keanu, Simone, Elijah and Miles on the night I attended (there is a rotating cast), begin the show as “kids,” (albeit, kids born before the iPad apparently), playing cards and dice, goofing around and watching cartoons. However, it’s clear from the start they are more than that.
Placed inside a box of one-way mirrors, they are constantly reflected back to themselves while we can see their every move. They are an experiment, or maybe a focus group, as they are subjected to incessant requests by a recorded voice to move about the room in certain ways and answer questions about what they think. They also have use of a video camera, into which they sometimes talk, with younger versions of themselves, filmed two years earlier, and that appear on the TV. Both videos are projected onto screens that flank the mirrored box. In other words, unless your parents belong to the Gob Squad, this is likely not a play date.
It’s rather more a date with destiny. After some introductions, the kids start dressing up in leather jackets, painting on menacing faces with black lipstick and snorting coke. Then it’s time to trade in the studs and attitude for polos, small talk and homemade sushi at a 40th birthday party, then trade those for grey hair, comfy sweaters and exercise class, which finally get traded, for a death rattle. We’ve gone from 10 to 80 (years) in a little over an hour.
It sounds as morose as it could be simplistic, but the Gob Squad makes that kind of telescoping trenchant, as they did in the opener of Western Society (at NYU’s Skirball Center last season), to which Before Your Very Eyes could be a sequel. Both shows zero in on tropes that insidiously define life in our comfortable western societies, then challenge their content by blowing them up onto the ubiquitous screen of contemporary media. In Western Society, the focus was the familiar watchword “community;” in Before Your Very Eyes, it’s that bogeyman “aging.”
In this case, that fearful process of decline is reduced to three phases, when the tension between youth and age (what we have and what we might be losing) is particularly sharp: early adulthood, early middle age and advanced old age. Each of these scenes focuses on one of the actors, who dialogues with his or her younger self in the video shot two years ago when the actors were as young as 4th grade. The younger selves ask their older selves questions like : Are you in a relationship? What happened to your hair? Do you still believe in the things I do? Did you ever become that famous novelist or actor I want to be?
The answers are usually the opposite of what the children want to hear. A particularly tough exchange takes place between Charlotte, in a goth look wearing a dog collar and black lipstick, telling her nine-year old self she threw out the little talisman the girl used to carry and that all the other stuff she used to care about is just stupid. Nine-year old Charlotte answers back, still with the polite manners of well-brought up children, “Well, it was so great talking to you…!” It’s pretty heartbreaking. As is a scene when Keanu realizes his dreams to be a super famous entertainment mogul might be too huge to ever come true. Or when Simone considers that middle-age is just going to be a series of disappointments and compromises. The kids might find this discouraging, but for the adults in the audience, these realizations can strike much closer to home.
That still sounds morose, but the soundtrack to Right Before Your Eyes is Queen’s pump-it-up anthem to youth, “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Watching the show’s opening video, where the seven kids dance crazily in the streets of New York to Freddy Mercury singing, “I feel alive and the world I’ll turn it inside out,” makes you believe that there’s another way to age without sacrificing your ideals – even for the adults looking on.
Beckett’s famous sentiment on mortality – “They give birth astride of a grave…” – lurks in the background here, but is not embraced, at least in the phrase’s popular acceptation as a reason to give up living. If our kids are growing up so fast – right before our eyes – looking at these seven children from across New York’s social and cultural fabric, is to want them to hold on to what makes childhood so exciting: optimism, possibility and dreams. They are indeed “traveling at the speed of light” and “having such a good time” in Queen’s lyrics. Before Your Very Eyes is an invitation to not only not stop them, but to see them get where they want to go, even if it means putting blinders on our own fears, and resurrecting a little crazy optimism again, a little fearless energy, when childhood is long gone.