Amid the infomercials, dating videos, and YouTube love diaries presented as part of “The Art of Luv (Part One): Elliot” at the Under the Radar Festival, is one by a college student who expresses frustration and bafflement that girls don’t like him, even though he dresses well, has an expensive pair of sunglasses, and drives a BMW. The man is never explicitly identified during the 50-minute show, but he is Elliot Rodger, who in May, 2014, shot and killed six people, and injured 13 others near the campus of the school he attended, the University of California, Santa Barbara, before committing suicide.
Performers Tei Blow and Sean McElroy, with an assist from Eben Hoffer, treat this video like all the others, repeating what Rodgers is saying as he’s saying it, into a live-feed video camera, images of Blow or McElroy appearing on screens side by side with the video of Elliot Rodger. All the videos are presented as part of what is obviously meant to feel like a religious ritual – the faces of the performers are painted gold, they are dressed in robes, New Age music emanates from the laptop computers, the Anspacher theater at the Public Theater has been turned into a makeshift ashram, audience members sitting on pillows within tent-like walls in the semi-darkness.
What little context we’re given for the performance clues us into the satiric intention of the enterprise. The performers call themselves the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, and, although their grave affect is appropriate for a sacred ritual, that ritual includes at one point Hoffer slipping underneath McElroy’s prostrate body, McElroy disrobing, and then Blow eating sushi off of McElroy’s bare chest. Even if they hadn’t done this, the satiric nature seems clear from the contrast between the prayerful atmosphere of the theater and the low-brow content and quality of the videos on what women want and how to get laid. (Even that “luv” instead of “love” hints at our descent into pop culture land.)
What, then, should we make of their presentation throughout the show of moments from the Elliot Rodger video? (See the actual video below.) They don’t just slip this video in; they market the show in connection with Rodger’s rampage, and allude to it in the very title of their show. Should we take umbrage at their trivializing a horrendous tragedy? It’s hard to do so when during the performance they don’t identify Rodger nor make any reference to what he did.
Some of the strength of “The Art of Luv” is in what occurs after it’s all over, in our contemplation of the indiscriminate rush of messages and images that invade our daily lives, undermining even something as basic as our search for love.
The Art of Luv (Part 1: Elliot) will be shown at the Public Theater through January 17, 2016.
As part of the festival’s “Reading Room,” the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble recommends the follow books. Click on them to learn more or to purchase.