Those outside his cultish thrall have long complained that George Coates’ performance works are little more than high-tech Lava Lamp-age spectacles, pretty to watch, devoid of content. Lately he’s addressed those concerns by introducing stronger storylines and themes.
His new multimedia show goes one theoretical step forward in this regard — and two steps backward in execution. As a (relatively) conventional stab at musical comedy, “A Box Conspiracy” is lavishly imagined visually, amateurish on all other counts.
Coates’ script vaguely satirizes both the interactive-media boom and our 500 -channel digital television future. Newly fired product designer Derek Hornsby created “The Disorganizer,” a portable TV/computer gadget. Economics forces him into the clutches of sinister Tom Testa, who proposes making the Hornsbys a “Testa Test-Market Family,” with access to 5,000 boob-tube channels and all the free goods they can order from its myriad shopping networks.
The rub: This interactive TV “box” will monitor (and soon control) every aspect of the Hornsbys’ lives.
“I don’t like it! It’s Orwellian!” Derek cries.
“Wrong,” Testa smirks. “Huxley. ‘Brave New World.’ ”
The evening works best when it sticks to TV parody. Briefly, hilariously glimpsed hyper-specialty channels include networks dedicated to “Violent Cooking ,””All Beer,””Weekend Leave Murders” and “My Favorite Mayhem.” There are 12 “recovery” networks (ha ha), while stolen ancient artifacts are up for caller purchase on “The Grave Robbins Show.”
But Coates’ sloppy script screams for dramaturgical assistance. The odd witty line aside, dialogue consists mostly of lame puns and filler. The actors are clearly at the timing mercy of visual cues. They fumble through their paces as if barely off-book. Nothing makes much sense, even in fantasy-logic terms. Why is the Disorganizer better than the dreaded Box? Why does daughter Olivia’s slain beau Simon resurrect? What foggy anti-tech message is flagged as everyone sings about “Digging a Hole” at the end?
While “A Box Conspiracy” seems intended as self-parody, Coates remains an orchestrator of effects; as writer and director, he doesn’t lend this mess any satirical precision. The actors are rudderless, the pacing nonexistent. Marc Ream’s score (taped, with live players on horns and sax) mostly marks time via disco bleats, occasionally injecting African, reggae and Middle Eastern flavors. Strong singing voices are wasted on Coates’ dim lyrics. Tech aspects are expectedly state-of-the-art. While having to wear 3-D glasses throughout grows headache-inducing, it’s still exciting to see performers (on steeply raked platforms behind a scrim) merge into slide projections, film and computer animation.
The purely visceral aspects of “A Box Conspiracy” may delight Coates neophytes. No doubt they’ll satisfy fans ever-ready to lay thought aside for 2 1 /4 hours. But in moving closer to theatrical conventions, Coates underlines his need for collaborators with a real understanding of how those conventions work.