There are those who consider people watching a distraction, others a hobby, still others just plain impolite. For Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, co-directors of the company 600 Highwaymen, people watching is an “obsession” and in their devised play The Record, they take that obsession to the level of art. “Art” not only because they want to “put a frame around” everyone they meet, but also because The Record presents a tableau vivant of modern day New Yorkers, in all their particularities, styles and oddities.
The ambiguously titled show is a mystery to experience: 45 strangers of all ages, sizes and dress spend a full hour in silent movement, slowly adopting the various poses of a limited choreography (fists up to fight, leaning over like a tree, lying on the floor, etc.) or running around the stage. They cluster in groups, pair off, or stand alone. Sometimes they catch another one falling, or stop their neighbors from gesturing or take someone by the head and pull him or her close. Mostly they gaze fixedly at the audience, erect, unmoving. A cellist and a music designer layer melancholy compositions by British composer Max Richter or a dance beat over their actions.
While all this takes place on stage, something peculiar happens in the audience, as well. Under the house lights which never dim, we are drawn emotionally into the performers’ strange ballet, unable to take our eyes off of their humanity. And since they don’t talk, we can only wonder: what are they thinking standing there like that? What does their posture say about them? Or their clothes? Where do they live or what might they do for a living? And what do we look like to them, gazing back at their inscrutableness?
The Record is one of two plays in the Under the Radar festival that co-director Meiyin Wang described for me as “actually under the radar,” in that this young company that rehearses in a church basement is largely unknown and feeling its way into the murky zone where theater, dance and performance meet. The project shares some obvious parallels with Pascal Rambert’s A (micro) History of World Economics, Danced (shown in the 2013 Crossing the Line festival) by nature of its work with non-professional actors and the use of a fixed, though not invariable, choreography to take possession of a prescribed space. However, and more importantly, The Record’s underlying preoccupation comes from aesthetic concerns whereas Rambert’s revolved around economic structures.
The Record explores the nature of being human, of being at all, moving and interacting with hundreds of others just like, but not quite like, us. To touch, to feel, to breathe, to see: it is an intense moment of being present and of being in this all together.