Beware proselytizing converts, the otherwise smart and cynical folks who have seen the light and now wish to shed that same unfiltered glow on us as well. That’s what Bobby Baker does with her one-person-plus-assistant show “How to Live,” having its U.S. preem at New Haven’s 10th annual Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas. Therapy trumps theater in the 75-minute work, which appears to have limited appeal aside from some halfway houses — and even then the residents might give Baker the heave-ho for being too sweet, optimistic and banal.
The performance artist from the U.K. presents her show, which preemed at the Barbican, as if it were a lecture at a psychological institute. In essence, she tells the aud how to get through life with the aid of 11 easy-to-follow instructions, gathered from her own therapy as well as consultation with other experts in the field (several of them noted in the program).
Wearing a white lab coat, she exudes an air of unrelenting cheeriness of the sort one expects at a blood drive, not at a therapy session — and certainly not at an evening of cutting-edge theater. (The festival’s reputation slipped a few rungs with this one.)
As Baker chirps on and on about her life-changing, unique, transformative, therapeutic approach (“whether you think you need it or not”), one waits for the subversive take or at least something a little more complex. The notion that you have to walk in another person’s shoes to know what they’re feeling is not exactly a stop-the-presses discovery for Psychology Today.
You hope some theatrical twist is coming: Surely this is some British sendup that takes on the health-care system, the medical profession or self-help gurus. Guess again.
In Baker’s session, the “patient” on which she uses to illustrate her lessons is a frozen pea. In showing how important it is to look at life’s tiniest details, she uses the petite vegetable to demonstrate how her 11-step program can be transformative for legumes and humans alike — in a way, we’re all in the same pod. But this Bird’s Eye perspective is merely coy and cute. Watching her jump over bags of frozen peas to illustrate ways to get exercise or watching Baker smooch a pea seems just too twee.
In an effort to make the evening more than a lecture, her deadpan technical assistant Frank Bock videotapes her talk and projects the images on a screen, all the better for the aud to observe “the details.” He also stage-manages the show, dragging the “psychiatrist office” set on and off the stage. Film clips and slides illustrate Baker’s points.
But despite the tech support, silly costumes and brief audience participation that involves everyone eating a pea (provided in their programs), Baker’s self-important presentation is as dramatically wan as it is substantially simple.
While these common-sense life lessons (“On bad days, give yourself a treat,” “Self-validate, your pain is real” and “Undo your rage by acting sweet”) may indeed be helpful to some — one reads that they were for Baker during her own mental-health difficulties — as theater they are a bore, even when the bromides rhyme. In the end, the details Baker presents are not so special after all, and a pea is just a pea, even when presented by a very nice, scarily normal lady in a smock.