Like a lot of collaborative projects, the Foundry Theater’s latest opus — a grab bag of loosely constructed scenes and disjointed images suggested by the contents of a backpack left on a New York City subway train — was probably a lot more fun to put together than it is to watch. But unlike most experimental companies, the Foundry has a political agenda that lends weight to this avant-garde piece. So while the dramaturgy is more of a weak pop than a “Major Bang,” the show’s comic inventiveness has a welcome political kick.
The hand of Melanie Joseph, the Foundry’s committed founder and artistic director, is evident in the cutting-edge sensibility of this antic but angry response to the climate of fear and the crackdown on civil liberties that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the theatrical equivalent of a word-association exercise, the show’s creatives toss out clever, occasionally even hilarious images of doom and disaster that come to mind when contemplating a red backpack left on a subway train.
In one scenario, the backpack — which “magically” hovers in midair throughout the show — is rigged with a nuclear device and explodes. But as one of the performers in this two-handed piece drolly notes, the company isn’t actually equipped to stage an explosion of this magnitude. So they swing into an alternate scenario of unpacking the schoolbag and see what they can do with the pens, notebook, a can of Diet Coke and other stuff that some spaced-out kid forgot to take to school that morning.
Not all the sketches that develop from deconstructing the contents of the iconic backpack are inspired. But among the referential material (to sources as diverse as Lenny Bruce and “The Bodyguard”) is a wonderfully goofy treatment of the bizarre case of a 16-year-old Detroit Boy Scout who in 1995 built a functional nuclear device in his garage. Before you can say, “Whoa — weird science!,” the show shifts into an extended riff (that really is inspired) on “Dr. Strangelove.”
Like Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 farcical antiwar film, this updated homage features a crazed warmonger, the psychotic Boy Scout master Major Bang, played here by a performer (Steve Cuiffo) who even looks like Peter Sellers. And like the movie’s monstrous General Ripper, Major Bang has his own insane idea for launching a military attack on our enemies — with an army of 8-year-old Boy Scout soldiers. “We need little guns with little bullets,” he says, with a manic glint of madness in his eyes.
But “Dr. Strangelove” is only the template for a patchwork of its creators’ individually inventive ideas. Cuiffo, a Wooster Group regular who is also a magician, provides the framework of a magic show, warming up the house with card tricks and presiding over some sleight-of-hand staging effects.
Maggie Hoffman, a member of Brooklyn performance group Radiophone, contributes a decidedly postmodern ironic edge to an assortment of demented characters, from a lusty executive in a food irradiation plant to Whitney Houston.
The show’s theme is best expressed, though, in Kirk Lynn’s scripted lines: “They tried to scare us but it didn’t work. We took all the cars and planes and unattended bags, everything they had made dangerous, and we put them out of reach by turning them into jokes and stories.”
But if the Foundry’s intention is indeed the same as Kubrick’s — to purge fear by mocking the constructs of terrorism — the company should deliver the message in a more coherent way, because right now it’s not exactly persuasive. The gut problem is that terrorist attacks, being random and unstructured, are too shifty to satirize.
Acknowledging this, helmer Paul Lazar actually makes a point of playing up the randomness of terrorism and the disorganized nature of fear in his free-form staging of the disjointed scenes and sketches. Set designer Michael Casselli makes the same point visually by cluttering the playing space with unused props. Wendy Meiling Yang contributes to the aura of disorder via colorful bits of clashing costume pieces.
But in the spirit of experimentation, it would be interesting to see a more grounded approach to the same material.