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Theatre in Review: The Brobot Johnson Experience (All For One Theater/Bushwick Starr)

Darian Dauchan. Photo Marija Baranova.

A brobot, you should know, is "half robot, half brotha," and Brobot Johnson was the very first of a series of cyborgs developed in the year 2018. We learn this from Flobot Owens, "ambassador and member of The Tribe Called Space Quest: The Brobot Intergalactic Outreach Program." Flobot has dropped in from the planet Nubian, from the year 2118, traveling through space and time to share with us "the Thirteen Codes of Brobot." So, settle in, fasten your seat belts, and prepare for serious amounts of rhythm, rhyme, and uplift. Although The Brobot Johnson Experience is a strictly nondenominational entertainment, it even comes with its own communion service: Flobot passes around little bowls of sweet-potato chips; we are invited to take one, hold it up, and pledge ourselves to "peace, love, and dopeness."

There's a hitch, however: The B. Funk Meter, a prominent feature of Raul Abrego's set -- which, amusingly, looks like a piece of the ship from 2001: A Space Odyssey, if the production designer had been Ed Wood -- is dangerously low. (It's a tower, a little bigger than a person, that, illuminated from within with color-changing LEDs, performs vertical chase sequences.) To Flobot's consternation, the colors it is producing are pale and the chases are anemic, which, apparently, means terrible things are imminent. Flobot's mission is to deliver the codes, reactivate the B. Funk Meter, and save both humankind and the life on planet Nubian -- all in eighty minutes.

A night at a dance club crossed with a children's television aesthetic, The Brobot Johnson Experience coasts on a wave of catchy loops, vocal samples, and a torrent of raps, most of them more impressive for their sound than any meaning. As such, and given the peace-love-dopeness message, the show is pitched squarely at the millennials in the audience. For Code 3, which is movement, everyone is invited to stand up and sway in time to the music. Next is Code 4, improvisation, which comes with the command to dance. ("Get yo ass on the dance floor and shake it like a Polaroid picture," Flobot says. I wonder how many in the smartphone-toting audience even know what that is.) At another point, rings adorned with LEDs are passed around, and everyone moves their hands, creating lighting patterns. Throughout, the lyrics are pretty basic -- for example, "Follow me then I follow you/Look in my eyes/See the truth/Mesmerized/Hypnotized/By this nightlife/It's just me and you/Forget everybody on the dance floor/Our bodies in sync they demand more." And the text is almost evangelical in its zeal: "When you reach for elevation you rise to your higher self."

The Brobot Johnson Experience is the brainchild of writer/composer/star Darian Dauchan, who is clearly talented, not least for his ability to command an audience. I have little doubt that we'll be hearing more from him. This effort, however, is best described as a boutique item, aimed at those who don't mind an overloaded text dominated by a complicated and uncompelling backstory and expressed in verse that often whooshes by too fast to understand. The save-the-universe theme is designed to infuse the audience with good feelings, but it is too vague and generalized to have much effect. And if you don't enjoy audience participation, don't even think of going near the Bushwick Starr.

The production is amazingly slick, considering the venue. Abrego's clever set is paired with Katherine Freer's extensive projection design, which depicts the creation of Brobot Johnson and his experiences on the streets of New York. Sarah Johnston's lighting maintains a dance club vibe, with plenty of lively effects. Asa Benally's costume design has plenty of witty touches, not least the square space helmet that accommodates Flobot's rectangular Afro haircut. Thanks to Matt Stine's sound design, the entirely mic'ed show never becomes overbearing.

Dauchan is young performer, and if The Brobot Johnson Experience doesn't land him immediate cult status, there's no reason to believe it won't happen before too long. (Daniel Alexander Jones, creator of Jomama Jones, took a while to find his way, too.) As of now, he needs to develop more of an edge: His current show is sweet-natured and eager to please, arguably too much so. He has the peace, love, and dopeness part down pat -- now he needs to risk challenging his audience. -- David Barbour

(27 February 2018)

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