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Theatre in Review: Take Care (The Flea Theater)

Ryan Stinniett, Tommy Bernardi, Isabella Sazak. Photo: Bjorn Boldiner

After Take Care was over, I left the theatre stained with blood. Okay, it was fake blood, and it was just some splotches on my sweater and jeans, but my warning to you, theatregoer, is this: If you attend, don't dress up. If the "blood" doesn't get you, the water will. For Take Care is a throwback to the hectic days of theatrical happenings, when troupes like The Living Theatre did everything possible to topple the fourth wall, eliminating the line between performer and audience. Forget so-called "interactive" shows like Sleep No More; Take Care all but demands that its viewers join in the action.

First, we are told to check our coats and bags, and are escorted, one by one, downstairs to the theatre by an actor who hands us a glass of water. (I was also given a peppermint.) In the theatre, the seating is around the room's perimeter. Someone is playing an upright piano. Four video screens show footage of baby chicks on an assembly line, sped-up film of commuters racing through train stations, traffic on Park Avenue, and announcements from the Emergency Broadcast System. We are given the opportunity to choose one of three levels of participation: featured, group, or voyeur. (I opted for the last. A young man sitting near me was asked if he would mind getting wet, provided that he was given a change of clothing. He agreed and left, returning a few minutes later, clad in sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and sandals.) People who choose one of the first two options are handed one of many paper pamphlets attached, with clothespins, to a laundry line running through the theatre; it contains the program of events for the evening and the exact time each of them is to happen.

Once the action starts, the time is noted on the video screens; Take Care runs only about 50 minutes, and, if you have agreed to read from the script at seven minutes after the hour, you had better be on schedule. Your script gives you a start time, a location, an action, an end time, and directions about what to do when you are finished. For example, at the top of the evening, a series of participants, either stepping up to the mic in the center of the room or staying seated, makes statements like "Carbon dioxide literally cannot cause global warming;" "Market signals says that addressing global warming is a big, economy-sapping waste of time;" and "You're all just future welfare recipients."

You have by now discovered the themes of Take Care -- climate change, racism, and inequality, the big three issues plaguing America today -- with an emphasis on the first. Participants wave plastic bags in the air. A black guy stands upstage center as others pass by, spitting as they do, saying things like "You're what's wrong with America," and "All lives matter." We are invited to suggest a good hurricane name. (A wag in the audience came up with "Jack the Ripper," but the winner was "Edgar.")

Colorful ponchos are distributed to everyone. The lighting changes, and there are storm sound effects; three people -- including that young man I mentioned -- are made to sit in the center, ponchos on, holding cardboard boxes over their heads while actors equipped with portable tanks and hoses pelt them with water. Actors pass by, using basters to shoot fake blood at us. And so it goes. During a moment of staged chaos, a man and woman wrestle each other to the floor, two guys make out, someone paints on the wall the message, "There is no Planet B." A participant is placed at center stage wearing an enormous rainbow headdress; the actors crawl toward her, making ecstatic sounds.

As I have often written, to me the scariest words in the English language are "audience participation," but during Take Care a certain sense of control is never lost. (Having seen the text, I now know that it is almost entirely scripted; even the words spoken to me by the nice young actor who seated me were written and rehearsed.) And even if you believe, as most of us do, that climate change is quite possibly the defining issue of our time, Take Care often feels more like a technical exercise than a powerful political statement. (It is surely no accident that the press previews took place simultaneously with the COP21 conference in Paris, in which the world's nations met in an attempt to reach common goals for the reduction of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere.)

Later in the evening, the action goes slightly off-script when a first-aid kit is passed around, and everyone -- actors and audience alike -- is asked to imagine withdrawing something from it. (At my performance, the answers ranged from the strictly logical, such as medical instruments, to the whimsical, for example, hugs.) Not long after that, the mic is passed around and we are asked to finish a sentence that begins "I am [blank]." (This also got a wide range of responses; in some cases, they were quite heartfelt, with some people talking about their need to take political action, or their frustration with those who are indifferent to the state of the world. Then again, it's possible these were actors, playing a part.)

Take Care was written by Todd Shalom, who is a "ringleader" of Willing Participant, a group that "whips up urgent poetic responses to crazy shit that happens." His coauthor is Niegel Smith, the Flea's artistic director, who also staged the production. The direction is confident, and the Bats, the theatre's resident troupe, are always a pleasure. Daniel Soule's scenery (including a special area, with fishnets and twinkle lights, designated for the winner of an on-stage contest), Claudia Brown's costumes, Amith Chandrashaker's lighting and video, and especially Miles Polaski's sound (with some extremely realistic storm effects) are all professionally done and to the point.

I would never suggest that what is going on downstairs at the Flea isn't urgent or deeply felt. But, in a funny way, Take Care undermines its own argument by reducing its discussion of an all-important topic to a series of staging devices that are only pretend-spontaneous. I didn't think about rising temperatures, melting glaciers, or floodwaters; I already think about them, which is probably true of almost anyone who attends performances at The Flea. Instead, I just wondered what crazy thing these talented kids were going to do next. -- David Barbour

(11 December 2015)

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