A REVIEW by Daniel Munkus: Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia, Unfinished Lines

Performance Review: Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia by OMSK/Lotte van den Berg http://www.fiaf.org/crossingtheline/2012/2012-ctl-lotte-van-den-berg.shtml

by Daniel Munkus, Oct. 2013

Donald Fleming on a soapbox - Times Square

Pleinvrees/Agoraphobia by OMSK/Lotte van den Berg: Donald Fleming on a soapbox in Times Square

By the time the street preacher and the cellist disappeared into the crowd at Times Square, I had hardly noticed that some strange reversal had happened, some strange leaving behind. The cellist who had been “one of us,” suddenly splintered away. She had been stationary the entire time while we watched her perform the musical score. We, the knowledgeable audience of the work, understood her role. She was a busker, a character, a performer, a musician; and, with the simple gesture of leaving her cello behind and walking away with the preacher, she became a fog.

The final moments of the street performance Agoraphobia, described above, detail the sensation of one being engulfed in an uncountable sea of people, a place with no room to breathe, a place with too much room to breathe. Conceived by Dutch artistic director Lotte van den Berg and her company OMSK, the performance occupied just one city block, but evoked and addressed infinite quandaries of space and lost individuation. Devised to begin in a remote place, a teleconference call, it ends in the most immediate and poignant, with the audience feeling present but lost and still searching for something to hold on to. The ambient crowd was impenetrable and the ending of the work transformed it into a mist one could simply amble into. With an ending like this it seems easy to forget that the work had a beginning and middle.

Let’s go back to the top: The piece begins with audience members gathered in Times Square. We are gathered around a woman playing a cello on the corner of 43rd St. and 7th Ave in downtown Manhattan, and we are directed to dial a telephone number on our individual cell phones. There are people everywhere on this busy Saturday morning. When we dial and they pick up, we are “conferenced in” to a meeting in progress. Anybody who has spent disembodied hours in corporate America dealing with conference call procedures feels our pain immediately. After a few moments of listening in, however, it becomes clear that something is off in the flavor of the content being discussed by the male orator (played by Donald Fleming). Hiws words are oddly personal and strange. Appropriately, it’s never clear whether we, the audience, are or are not “allowed” to participate in the conference call. During my experience of the piece no audience member dared interrupt the man’s monologue.

Pleinvrees Agoraphobia audience -Times Square

Pleinvrees Agoraphobia audience in Times Square

As time passes, the content slowly becomes even stranger, now verging on the religious. Perhaps “spiritual” is a better term, as what this man is saying is more the diary entry of a lost soul with no real religious tradition to claim as his own. He has no noticeable psychological center and his random assembly of spiritual clichés is not directed to anyone, certainly not the tele-audience listening in. This centerless voice becomes embodied as the man speaking on the phone appears before us in live time armed with a wireless microphone. Each audience member notices him at different times and he appears as a phantom of sorts. Throughout this writing I will refer to this man as the “street preacher” or “preacher.”

The preacher proceeds to approach strangers, gesticulate, and reach spiritually towards others for another thirty minutes or so. He yells of lost connections, divine forces, and the end of it all. Dressed in a wardrobe, which situates him somewhere between a homeless person and a crazy uncle, he is convincing. He stands on top of milk crates and jaywalks across the street while gazing emptily at the buildings stretched high above him. His beard is dirty and his words both scary and ineffectual.

Donald Fleming and Passer-by Times Square

Donald Fleming and Passerby in Times Square

While our preacher preaches, the cellist (Amber Docters) plays on, accentuating the dramatic arc of Agoraphobia. If the cellist is improvising, it doesn’t sound like it. She either knows exactly what she is doing, or is too highly trained to be interpreted as lost in the piece. She is not struggling. From the beginning of the piece, throughout the conference call, and into the embodied section of the work she plays continuously and is the sonic bedrock of the emotions presented.

It is during the live and embodied portion of the work that we spend the most time as an audience in a typical spectator position. Here, nothing separates Agoraphobia from any other theatrical piece, which is displaced from a typical theater setting. The actor acts, the musician plays, and we watch. This was the mushy go nowhere center of the piece, neither here nor there. In Agoraphobia, unlike other works, this ambiguous center seems necessary. During this movement of the work, the audience, the preacher, and the cellist, are perpetually shut down by the intensity and insanity that is Times Square. The preacher yells to have a chance of being heard while the cellist shreds bow hairs to produce meaningful tones. Nothing of meaning is transmitted, and given the environment, how could it be?

Donald Fleming and Cellist - Times Square

Donald Fleming and cellist Amber Docters.

From here the two performers splinter away from us and walk together into the crowd, the preacher preaching and the cellist singing an operatic tune. This is the ending, and it sticks. It haunts me because it doesn’t tie up loose ends, rather it unties them further. The space left by the disappearance of the actors is tremendous. We’re left with no explanations as to who this man is, whether he is sane, right or wrong, and what his relationship to the cellist is. I’m left without closure, and we as audience members merge with the sea of tourists, themselves wandering around like unfinished lines.

Daniel Munkus is a singer songwriter hailing from the Bay Area, California, educated in fine arts at UC Berkeley, and mentored in music composition by San Francisco based composer Kurt Erickson. Influenced primarily by the great structural musicians of past and present (Beethoven, Bach, Steve Reich, etc.) his music is concerned with two things above all else: point of view and structure. Munkus holds an MFA from the Performance and Interactive media Arts Program at Brooklyn College.


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