“Remnant,” according to Theater Mitu’s director Ruben Polendo, is a meditation on war, death and loss. It is Mitu’s first piece in the first building that the 20-year-old company can call its own – a former glass recycling plant that Mitu has retrofitted as an “interdisciplinary art space” and rechristened Mitu580. (The building’s address is 580 Sackett Street, in Gowanus, Brooklyn.)
For “Remnant,” as Polendo informs us in a program note, the company spent three years interviewing people who have been directly affected by war, especially veterans, and people who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses, along with their families and their caretakers; as well as spiritual leaders and artists and…many other people.
“As they touch upon, come to the edge of, and often confront death,” Polendo writes, “each interview becomes a portrait of what is left behind – a remnant.”
Yet, for all Mitu’s explanations – in the program note, in words projected on the theater lobby, and in the show itself — what promised to be clear as glass soon begins to…splinter.
“Remnant” does indeed include some stories told by (the cast impersonating) survivors, along with relevant facts, and these can be fascinating and sometimes moving. But “Remnant” is only part documentary theater. It is also equal parts art installation, performance art, and technology-as-poetry. There is a suggestion as well of sci-fi, what with the performers wearing jumpsuits reminiscent of astronauts, or the bad guys in a Mission Impossible movie.
The show is inventive enough to feel like an adventure (and more so because it’s a pioneering presence in a neighborhood with few other theaters.) But prospective theatergoers should be willing to accept that Mitu ranks conventional clarity a low priority. As the projection above implies, the show is deliberately disorienting.
“Remnant” is split into three segments, each lasting about 25 minutes long and each taking place on a separate stage, which are really big open boxes. The boxes, labeled A, B. and C, are just a few feet apart. Audience members are divided into three groups of about 20 each, and given individual headsets to wear; the performers speak into hand-held microphones, and the audio for the entire show is pumped into our right ear. I started in Box C, was ushered to Box B after 25 minutes and then to Box A 25 minutes after that. But let’s go in alphabetical order.
In Box A, several veterans talk about their experiences, in voice-over. It is the most accessible and most affecting segment. A veteran (portrayed by Michael Littig) reveals his reluctance to consult a psychiatrist for his PTSD – post traumatic stress . Then the rest of the cast run down how this condition has been labeled in different eras:
“Soldier’s Heart” in 1865,
“Insanity” in 1898,
“War Neurosis” in 1914,
“Shell Shock” in 1918,
“Battle Fatigue” in 1945,
“Irritable Heart” in 1953,
“Psychological Wounds” in 1961,
“Stress Response Syndrome” in 1975,
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” in 1980
“Post-Traumatic Stress” in 1991.
Suddenly, the veteran voiceovers end, and an old cable program flashes on the monitor, with a decidedly unglamorous elderly couple as the hosts. If I was supposed to be amused by this ancient media artifact, I actually found wisdom in the woman’s homily:
“I would like to ask you this simple question:
Have you ever tried driving your car forward while looking in the rearview mirror? I certainly hope not….But you know we sometimes in our life do exactly that.
We look backwards with regrets and what if’s.”
In Box B, a host with one of those plastic announcer voices (portrayed by Denis Butkus) presents an unusual radio hour. Many of the features are what you’d find in some old-timey program – listener call-ins, readings, “a word from our sponsors,” some new products. But much of this is jarringly erudite or surreal. The host introduces a product called the Body Mic; “instead of amplifying your volume, this one amplifies your past and all the memories inside you.” Alex Hawthorn places the microphone at different points of his body – his heart, his throat, his right side – and hears other cast members in voiceover talk about the dilemma King Arthur faced in peacetime – his soldiers didn’t know what to do with themselves, learning that “peace, not war,is the destroyer of men.”
The announcer reads from The Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic poem that we’ve been told (in the program note, and elsewhere) was the inspiration for “Remnant.” The caller is a Sultan who explains how after he cleared a battlefield of dead bodies, he was eager for a breakfast of raw meat. “You know, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht once said: “When you play with the beast, take care not to become the beast.’ And I, I felt myself becoming the beast. And I fight it….”
In Box C, a doctor in a hospital (Justin Nestor) is examining a neurologically impaired patient, asking him or her to blink for yes or no. We don’t see the patient; the doctor is looking out towards the audience. as if we are the patient; the TV monitor by the doctor’s side does the blinking. A woman (Ada Westfall) riffs on body temperature and dead bodies (“At a funeral in the casket, if you touch the hand of the person in the casket, your first thought is:’the body’s cold.” No. It’s not. It’s room temperature. But it’s cold compared to a hundred degrees.) Another woman (Attilio Rigotti) interviews her dying mother (Kayla Asbell.)
Many of the conversations are recorded in voice-over; oftentimes the box is very dark, and the video monitors are flashing something distracting, like snow, although sometimes what’s on the monitor is intriguing. At one point, Michael Littig is sitting at a desk with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, an old florescent desk lamp, and half a pink grapefruit, while the video monitor below the tabletop shows a shirtless torso with an enlarged pink grapefruit where the heart would be.
Each segment ends with the projection of a clock, as the second hand measures an entire minute – ostensibly to give us a sense of how long a minute is.
Theater Mitu has a history of pairing serious investigations with avant-garde, tech-heavy stagecraft, most prominently in “Juarez,” which I saw in 2014. There is always a danger that unconventional theatrical noodling will be distracting, if not undermining. In retrospect, this was not a big problem in “Juarez,” perhaps because the play was about something concrete – the transformation of Polenco’s hometown from “the birthplace of the burrito and the margarita,” to “the Murder Capital of the World.” Similarly, I have never been bothered (quite the opposite) by the cutting-edge theatricality used by the Belarus Free Theatre to highlight various human rights abuses.
I’m more ambivalent about “Remnant,” which at best revolves around some big themes rather than focusing on a specific subject, but often feels random. The use of the headphones and the distancing effect of the actors performing inside the dark boxes, are arguably at odds with some of the very aspects of live theater that have allowed it to endure – the sense, for one, that all of us are there together to share an experience.
On the other hand, the show uses technology lyrically, and, as with poetry, there is the possibility of an ineffable communication, not directly intelligible, but nevertheless meaningful on some perhaps subterranean level. “Remnant” begins and ends with a voiceover explaining that, since the brain has a hard time processing the absence of light, “If you sit in darkness long enough, you’ll begin to see color…In the darkness—whether literal or spiritual— the only thing to do is to find light, and to listen.” Maybe they’re on to something.
Created by collaborating artists Rubén Polendo, Justin Nestor, Denis Butkus, Michael Littig, Scott Spahr, Corey Sullivan, Ada Westfall, Kayla Asbell, Attilio Rigotti, Alex Hawthorn, and Xiao Quan, and directed by Rubén Polendo
Performed by Kayla Asbell, Denis Butkus, Alex Hawthorn, Michael Littig, Justin Nestor, Xiao Quan, Attilio Rigotti, Corey Sullivan, Ada Westall
Tickets: $25 (general admission), $15 (students/artists), $40 (“Mitu supporters”)
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission
Remnant is on stage at Mitu580 through September 21, 2018.