Review: The Stellar Absurdism of "Numbness: Chapter 2"

Numbness: Chapter 2

Conceived by Daniel Irizarry and Laura Butler Rivera

Text by Sylvia Bofill and Robert Lyons

Directed and choreographed by Daniel Irizarry

Presented by One-Eighth Theater at New Ohio Theatre

154 Christopher Street, Manhattan, NYC

April 26-May 18, 2019

Laura Butler Rivera and Michael Leonard. Photo credit: Matthew Dunivan

One-Eighth Theater’s world premiere of Numbness: Chapter 2 throws into sharp relief the heights that experimental theater can achieve. Part of a planned trilogy that began with the company’s Mouthgasm: Chapter 1, which was developed in Ankara, Turkey, and explored the theme of empathy, Numbness: Chapter 2 explores its titular conceit in a mode that One-Eighth styles The New Absurd. The result is simultaneously challenging and riveting, a triumph of elliptical storytelling, intense physicality, and exhilarating unpredictability.

Numbness comprises the main play, Black Water, written by Sylvia Bofill, and an entremés (traditionally a short farce played between acts in a Spanish comedia) titled YOVO, written by New Ohio Artistic Director Robert Lyons. Black Water takes place in the aftermath of an unspecified apocalypse that has left a toxic environment, black oceans, and plenty of corpses. Within a laboratory-cum-kitchen, Aaron (Michael Leonard) and Jensa (Laura Butler Rivera), only able to venture outside briefly in protective hazmat suits, follow orders from an unseen authority while enacting a funhouse-mirror version of domestic intimacy. Their situation sometimes calls to mind a more frenetic Endgame (Beckett’s, not Marvel’s), with unspeaking daughter Tessa (Gülin Langbroek), who looks like she stepped into the post-apocalypse out of the court of Marie Antoinette, in place of trash-can-dwelling parents. While it is Aaron early on who is trying to keep Jensa awake, however, it is Jensa who increasingly questions the “they” who dictate their lives and hold Tessa in custody. In the midst of this, YOVO, less a farce than a poetically evocative monologue performed by Daniel Irizarry, marries themes of oppression and revolt with an overflow of particular, sensual detail, creating a link, for example, to the way that Jensa imagines that the water of the ocean or the warmth of the sun would feel on her skin.

Daniel Irizzary. Photo credit: Matthew Dunivan
In addition to such suggestive thematic connections, Black Water and YOVO are also linked by physical echoes, including in the performers’ movements and the chalk dust that marks Irizarry’s battered suit from the outset and ultimately drifts over Aaron and Jensa. The play’s treatment of numbness works in a number of interpretive registers, and these interpretations become available through an aggregation of images and ideas, such as Aaron and Jensa’s repeated questioning of whether “nothing” is or can become “something.” This question that could have a metatheatrical dimension as well, a possibility strengthened by the presence of a brief, explicitly metatheatrical sequence, not to mention elements such as the visibility of the sound and lighting techs throughout and the use of space and audience participation. Numbness is a play that doesn’t hold your hand unless it is using it to pull you out of the audience, and it is staged intimately in the round, although the action consistently moves beyond that central space. These elements force the audience, to use Jensa’s words, “to feel something” in a very literal sense, whether that something is drops of water or the touch of a performer. It actively engages the senses with sound—the crack of a leather belt, a burst of music, the drip of water—memorable visual imagery—tubs of ambiguous liquid, Tessa’s mannequin-like poise, the lit end of a cigarette moving in the darkness—and even taste. The performers are in almost constant motion, creating the play’s own visual grammar and rhythms, and thereby its own, heightened world.

Gülin Langbroek. Photo credit: Matthew Dunivan
With a heady mix of the playful, the absurd, and the dramatic manifested in galvanic performances by a fiercely talented cast, Numbness: Chapter 2 delivers the excitement of a genuinely exceptional theatrical experience.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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