La MaMa’s Downtown Variety #1 and the new pandemic aesthetic

“It’s a challenging time, but it’s also an inspiring time,” said John King, one of the eight downtown artists who performed in La MaMa’s Downtown Variety #1 (program; full video below), the first of what promises to be a weekly livestreamed variety show.
King was chatting immediately after his performance, a pleasing chant, in which his image kept on changing colors and flickering – and I wasn’t sure whether this was intentional, or just one of the glitches in the transmission.
It wasn’t until musician Neel Murgai was playing the sitar that I realized some of the effects were intentional, because Murgai’s image started looking as if it was being filtered through a psychedelic kaleidoscope.

“Downtown Variety #1” was billed as “bringing La MaMa’s 1960s café aesthetic to a virtual platform,” and that touch of psychedelia seemed a quaint nod to the earlier era. But a week into the new shelter-at-home, social-distancing reality provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, the show seemed proof that a new aesthetic is already emerging. It’s an aesthetic that “Downtown Variety” shares with several other spontaneously organized theater online, such as 24 Hour Plays’ “Viral Monologues” and Seth Rudetsky’s “Stars in the House” (see my guide: Where To Get Your Theater Fix Online, Old Favorites and New Experiments Plus Lin-Manuel Miranda & Joshua Henry)

An essential part of that aesthetic is one-on-one, low-key and low-tech, which has its pluses and minuses. Downtown Variety is a co-production of Culture Hub, which has been doing this kind of livestreaming with La MaMa for more than a decade, and yet there was an amateurish quality to the show, with poor image and sound quality, and even disruptions and interruptions, complete with a screen full of television noise and the words “We’ll Be Right Back…” – reminiscent of the “Please Stand By” of the earlier years of broadcast television.
Yet, judging the show on its technical aspects, rather than the passionate commitment of all the artists who so quickly put it together, seems out of place, especially coming from someone who is still trying to figure out the proper way of washing my hands.
Besides, there was an appeal to this impromptu, Do-It-Yourself, we’re-all-in-this-together quality.  And I was won over by many of the performances. First up, Perry Yung improvised some beautiful, haunting hollow sounds from the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. Afterwards, he invited “my youngest” to share the screen, and there was something entertaining in a different way in watching the young man wearing a surgical mask silently and vigorously nod his head when his father says “what’s amazing about this moment is he just learned to play the guitar, like literally yesterday.”

I just adored Kate Rigg, best-known as one-half the comedy duo “Slanty Eyed Mama,” who seemed to ramble and rant, and show us her dog, and some photograph out of camera range. But then she freestyle rapped, and it was hilarious and pointed: “It’s a lockdown on my Upper West Side block down…I’m in a full blown leave me alone at home panic. I’m looking at my dog you’re so fucking lucky, you can’t catch this shit… I can’t confirm we’re all going to be ok, no way…I’m gonna panic, and I’m gonna count my toilet paper, and I’m gonna count my blessings.”

Not all the acts had the same appeal to me, but “Downtown Variety” had a distinct advantage over the many, many shows I’ve seen at La MaMa, all of which I’ve stayed through to the end, even on those occasions when I really wanted to leave. When it’s online, you can momentarily  switch to your e-mail or a news site and still legitimately claim to have stayed to the end.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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