Following about an hour of frenzied exchange between depravity and salvation, ANGER/NATION, the latest work from Brooklyn-based performance troupe Radiohole, came to what seemed like a premature end as the four actors shifted abruptly out of character and the house lights went on. Two of the performers (Radiohole member Maggie Hoffman and collaborator Iver Findlay) headed offstage, while the others (members Scott Halvorsen Gillette and Eric Dyer) invited the audience to stay for a brief post-performance discussion of current avant-garde theatre. About half-way into the talk – a send-up of theatre ‘talk-backs’ that didn’t name names but pointed in specific directions – Gillette asked Dyer, ‘What interests you?’ Dyer’s hesitant answer was, ‘It has to do with non-communication.’
Dyer’s statement got a few laughs as an in-joke aimed at the avant-garde, but it served equally as a leitmotif of ANGER/NATION. The title comes from the work’s dual inspirations, legendary filmmaker and occultist Kenneth Anger and 19th-century temperance crusader and pub-smasher Carrie A. Nation. Nation, played by Hoffman, was the protagonist, but the performance owed its aesthetic to the demonic glamour of Anger’s films. It began with Findlay, dressed as a drunken Roman centurion at a frat party, barking out the refrain, ‘Let’s get this party started’ and offering beer to the incoming crowds. The stench of the keg served the chaos of the set, which felt like the vague memory of a bar around last orders, as red lights, billowing smoke and floating video monitors made way for Hoffman’s dramatic entrance, as a woman on a mission from God.
To call the portrayal even a parody of Nation would be a stretch. Harangues against the demon alcohol, interspersed with personal biography and spoken – as Anger would probably have liked – with a Hollywood smile, despite a mouthful of fake blood and a hatchet, played up to the surreal atmosphere more than it offset it. The ritualistic overtones likewise permeated the party, with spoken word/dance segments, the ceremonial destruction of gold-painted beer cans and an extended sequence in which Gillette and Dyer, in white corsets, bent over and fired air rifles at each other’s asses.
Thrusting a figure like Nation into Anger’s maniacal sphere is unlikely to produce any conventional theatrical tropes, including a comprehensible story. But comprehension misses the point of debauchery. Radiohole goes beyond illogic and exploits the weirdness that results from this union. Hoffman’s Nation is not seduced into ‘a voluptuous spiritual transformation’ (as the press release describes it) because of logic, and neither is the audience engaged by the promise of a debate between parties. Everyone knows which side wins out – the avant-garde is, after all, Anger’s domain – which points to the problem of liberal politics in avant-garde theatre and art. ANGER/NATION’s probable demographic is an audience that is familiar with Anger and prepared, for the most part, for the work’s message and its references; were it to reach a broader audience, its language would probably be ineffective or worse. It was ANGER/NATION’s awkward closing discussion that thus proved most radical as it turned the satire on avant-garde theatre itself. Seated on stools under drab house lights, Gillette and Dyer, still in their corsets (Gillette’s cut open at the crotch), stuttered out academic catchwords (‘libidinal desire’) without saying a thing. And if contemporary politics is any indication, that’s what a debate is all about.