When Andrew Schneider put on his trickster theater piece entitled “YOUARENOWHERE” in 2016, it was a mind-altering experience, changing not just one’s perception of reality, but of what theater can do. Now, Schneider and his collaborators are presenting “After” as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, and I’m afraid what it primarily alters is my perception of Andrew Schneider.
As with “YOUARENOWHERE” (which can be read as You Are Now Here, or You Are Nowhere), “After” is a showcase for state-of-the-art stage technology created by Schneider, a self-described “interactive electronics artist” who for years created videos, installations and devices for the Wooster Group and other avant-garde theater companies.
“After” begins with a display of overhead lights sparkling like stars in the night sky; then there is darkness, followed by a woman lying inert on a stage that has become what looks like a gloriously radioactive bed of bright blue light. Then the theater is thrust into darkness again, and the lights come back on to show us a chair on the stage; darkness again, and lights back on to show us a box on wheels; lights off; lights back on to show us a man and a woman (Alicia ayo Ohs and Andrew Schneider himself); lights off; lights back on to show us the man and the woman in another pose, closer together; lights off; lights back on to show them in yet another pose, further apart.
And that’s how it goes for most of the 80 minutes of the show. Lights off; lights on to present a scene that rarely lasts longer than a minute, and is often little more than a second, usually between the man and the woman, but occasionally with a whole group of people. The blackouts are often accompanied by screamingly loud music.
The main exception to this routine is an extended period of time – it felt like 20 minutes, but was at least 10 – when we were thrust into darkness, stimulated only by sound effects and what smelled like an extinguishing campfire, but may have been stage smoke.
Schneider and his team employed great precision and, I have no doubt, impressively advanced technology, in executing the stage effects. Certainly, there was something visually pleasing in the abrupt switches of tableaux. But it’s also fair to say that I felt in the dark even when the lights were on.
The brief scenes separated by blackouts brought to mind what Caryl Churchill did four years ago in “Love and Information”, but each of Churchill’s scenes, no matter how brief, told a discernible story, and the play as a whole made a concrete point. “After” felt like “Love and Information” with a lobotomy. I couldn’t make sense of any of the dialogue. I didn’t grasp any intellectual idea behind the literal flashiness.
I tried. After “After,” I asked for the script to read. I was told the artists don’t work with a script.
So I searched for clues.
The Under the Radar website describes the show as “a mind-bending examination of what constitutes a single life and the endless possible outcomes at the precise moment of death.”
Maybe the darkness, then, was death, but otherwise this description raises a lot of questions for leaden literalists such as myself. If it’s a single life, why were there two people on stage most of the time? Does this mean that in each scene, they were about to die?
In an interview that Schneider gave last year when “After” debuted at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., he compared “After” with “YOUARENOWHERE”:
“It’s along the same train, which is about consciousness, love and physics and reality. It’s what makes up our everyday lives…If this last show was about parallel universes colliding, then what if there was another parallel universe hovering just below, what would that look like?”
That universe, judging from “After,” would sound like gibberish. It’s true that “YOUARENOWHERE” dealt with some complex concepts, but it did so in clear, well-spoken English, and concluded with a coup de theatre that made all that preceded it worthwhile. If, as Schneider has said, “After” is a sequel, it’s a disappointing one.
In the same interview, Schneider rejected both “performance art” and “experimental theater” as labels for his work: “Experimental theater suggests that it’s necessarily inaccessible, almost perfectly inaccessible. I’m not interested in that at all. I’m coming from a traditional musical theater background. I was trained in acting, singing and dancing, and I don’t think what I do is that far off.”
It is, Andrew, it is.
“After” is on stage at the Public Theater through January 14, 2018.