Exponential Festival Review: The Complaint Society

In this first play of the new year, the four statuesque performers are dressed in what at first look like classic robes, but on closer inspection are made up of regular street clothes. This strikes me as a first clue to what’s going on in “The Complaint Society,” which launches the eighth annual Exponential theater festival. Barnett Cohen’s entertaining hour-long theatrical poem is offering back to us recognizable aspects of our daily lives, put together in a heightened way.

“I’m reporting live from the living room floor,” one of the performers says.
“I’m reporting live from my first day on the job,” another says immediately afterwards — and we realize that these are comments on the pervasiveness of social media.

“The Complaint Society” is rich with such observations, sometimes funny, sometimes pointed, never dwelled on. 

Without much orienting context, the piece feels quick and dense, but rarely  impenetrable — especially since each theatergoer is given a ‘zine printed with the full text. There are even footnotes in the text, though I’m not sure how elucidating they’ll be to anybody: “Violence creates kinship,” one of the performers says. There is a footnote to the line in the text that lists the book “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, without any page number.

In a bio at the back of the ‘zine, Cohen proclaims himself committed to “kaleidoscopic queer surrealism,” in which he collects examples of language and symbols and “disorganizes”  them “into absurdist and anarchic non-sense.”

 I wouldn’t call “The Complaint Society” nonsense. There are moments that provoke a new sense: “history is something/someone once said/about something else/someone once said.” But it’s certainly non-linear and occasionally indecipherable.

The title comes from a single passage: 

“I’m a member of the Complaint Society
I lurk the perimeter of your joy.
My spit is poisonous
My wisdom is inverse.”

If I couldn’t detect anything close to a laser focus on this (or any other) theme in “The Complaint Society,”  that seems to be much of Cohen’s point. The very first thing anybody says is “In conclusion/I’m a conundrum” – which seems to mock the idea that anything about our fragmented culture these days could be summed up quickly or easily. If little in our world coheres, why should we expect a work of theater to?

Two shows I saw in 2022 helped prepare me to appreciate this first one of 2023, Heather Christian’s “The Oratorio for Living Things, “which also distributed a printed text, and was even more abstruse, some of it in Latin (but it had a lovely score), and Gertrude Stein’s “Four Saints in Five Acts,” a famously inscrutable opera which was performed without the music as a solo play by David Greenspan.  I learned that Gertrude Stein parried with a radio interviewer who suggested that nobody understood her opera.  “Of course they understand or they would not listen to it.” What he meant, she said, is that you can’t easily put her words into other words. “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”

The four performers of “The Complaint Society” –  Briana Archer, Deja Bowen, Lena Engelstein and Rachel Rivera – never take on distinct characters, although they often speak  as “I.” But it’s largely thanks to their graceful movement and knowing line delivery that I did enjoy “The Complaint Society.” I felt I even understood some of it, and not just because I enjoyed it.

The Complaint Society,”  Is being performed at the Brick through January 7.

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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