THE HAPPY GARDEN OF LIFE
October 30, 2019
If someone approached you pleading for you to give up your life so that their children could be born, what would you do? Being a millennial, my newsfeed is often teeming with self-destructive jokes, so much so as to have prompted articles dissecting my age group’s dismal sense of humor to the point of it feeling as though my entire generation is on suicide watch.
It then follows that if there were ever a time to stage such a bleak bit of audience participation, it would be now, and Jenna Hoffman certainly delivers in her direction of Anna Jastrzembski’s stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “2BR02B,” The Happy Garden of Life. However, as largely millennial as my fellow spectators were, we are still New Yorkers after all. Being well versed in panhandlers, Brian Sanchez’s heart-rending performance of Ed Wexler’s desperation goes without response, and his story is able to continue towards its end as written.
The production productively dashes immersive expectations as though they were never set up in the first place. Convening in the lobby of the New Ohio Theatre, we are divided into groups. Customary for a piece meant to be performed on loop and/or in promenade, it merely brings us inside in order.
This is brilliant in a time when more and more performance claims to be immersive, isn’t, and never admits to it. Happy Garden poetically riffs on this petty aesthetic hypocrisy as politically analogous to the illusion of choice and makes it integral to its world-building.
In the New World Order, medicine has made death optional, but population control requires a death to make space for every birth. The World Preservation Party broadcasts propaganda encouraging citizens to sacrifice themselves, and yet has to force its convicts and debtors to be standby “volunteers.”
It is all the more poetic that, to a piece that so calculatingly breaks the fourth wall, we remain outsiders. Hoffman flips New Ohio’s layout, filling what is usually audience seating with Matthew Imhoff’s claustrophobic scenography – a raised, cinderblock cubicle just beyond an astroturf runway. Scenes, alternating between storyline, flashback, and live-action commercials are temporally sequenced, spatially broken up, and jarringly lit by Christina Tang in a way that structurally implodes the piece as the truth is more universally revealed.
With composer Emily Erickson, Assistant Director Yannik Encarnação, and her ensemble’s bold energies, Hoffman fashions a modular performance arena wherein actors can be both grotesque caricatures and deeply human, clearly shifting between the stylized mannerisms of who they have to be for the Party and who they really are.
This is precisely why we are here – to have this bird’s eye view overwhelmingly up close. The WPP is not the Trump Administration, as it is more a kind of socialism gone awry. What we can identify with, though, is the bewilderment of wondering how a population could ever achieve such a protestable reality.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews