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Fuse Box 2008 Part II

Justin Follin
Inside the Dream Machine

I felt as if a toy box had been opened and I got to spend the week playing with everything inside. It felt surreal, no, sub-real; toying with communication and twisting conventions.

+ Part I

Fuse Box 2008

2008-04-24 -- 2008-05-03

Austin, Texas

Part II: Better than Wonderland, or: The Proximitator, Blue 60, Reggie Watts, Cape Disappointment

I have a story about Alice in Wonderland and Roy Orbison. In the second grade, I think, a live-action Alice in Wonderland movie came out. This was very exciting for me. I had always imagined Wonderlands, and cartoons didn’t look real like my imagination did. But this show had real people, and all of the crazy hookah smoking and mushroom eating looked much more possible. It was on television, a two-part series on Sunday nights. They showed Part I on Easter Sunday. It was transfixing, everything I could have hoped.

Dad and I listened to Roy Orbison together back then. We sang, “From the hut to the boat to the sea for Leee-aaaah.” I was little and he was my Dad and our voices sounded nothing like Roy’s. The Sunday after Easter Sunday, Dad had gotten us tickets to see the Texas crooner with a voice that sounded like an Italian’s. We could sing about Leah with the guy who wrote the song about her. I remember buckling my seat belt and I remember how excited I was to go to a live concert. We pulled out of the driveway and drove down our street. Thirty seconds later, I remembered it was the Sunday after Easter. Tonight was Part II of the live-action Alice in Wonderland.

Dad pulled back into the driveway. He tried hard to show me the error of my decision. But he was fighting the power of a giant chess game populated with real knights. I reached up to close what seemed like a giant car door to a second grader. I told him, “We’ll just go to the next Roy Orbison concert.” He drove off. He looked disappointed.

Roy Orbison died two months later. Part II of the live-action Alice in Wonderland was nowhere near as good as Part I. It was even a little boring. Ever since this tragic decision, I have been skeptical of Part II’s. This is Part II of my review of the 2008 Fuse Box festival. Better than Wonderland.

The story above has nothing to do with Fuse Box. However, it was a conversational story. You might have been sitting in my living room. We might have been drinking Lone Stars. I would have told the story, and the conversation could have spun off in any number of directions. In this way, the story above and Fuse Box have a lot in common. As I said in Part I, Fuse Box is a conversation. Sometimes the conversation feels absurd. Sometimes it makes little sense. Sometimes it tells a story without any story at all.

In many ways, though, the second of half of my week’s immersion in this odd canvas of off-kilter performances felt more cohesive, more straight-forward. The surprises of these shows hid less within bizarre experiments of form -- although formal experiments were common. The shows I saw in the second half generally stuck with the basic convention of stage and house: we in the audience remained the audience while the performers entertained. Still, the productions roamed and wandered and forgot their points and turned around again, and we forgot that they forgot. They were fun, and always a conversation of sorts.

The Proximitator

The Proximitator, if invented, would interlink the world’s population via a portable device or implant that uses physical proximity as an indicator of connectivity. It might work like an iPhone that uses BitTorrent technology. While BitTorrent technology was developed by an autistic savant in the silicon mines of Northern California, The Proximitator was invented by a horny New York businessman and his resourceful but equally horny secretary in the imagination of Michael Agresta -- a playwrighting MFA candidate at the University of Texas’s Michener Center.

An ambitious script, The Proximitator told three stories (and even more sub-stories) from 54 stories high in three physical locations on a high-powered block in Manhattan. Much like the play, the experience of watching the production could also be divided into three important components that made it unique to the Fuse Box festival. I will call these the beginning, middle, and end.

Let’s start with the end.

The End

After The Proximitator had reached its own ending, Agresta, his dramaturge, and his director lined three chairs on the stage and began a dialogue with those of us willing to stick around. What worked? Could you understand the conversations? What would you change? And here we had the opportunity to contribute to the future of The Proximitator. This had been a workshop production in the most literal of senses. It had been a fully blocked performance with scripts still in hand. It was the first time anyone had seen that play, and it felt like we had landed somewhere between conception and birth, just in time to see what the baby would look like. Now, its parents were asking us to help them make sure it would grow up a beautiful child. This seemed the perfect sort of installation in a festival intent on breaking that barrier between spectator and artist. It was also appropriate because the play itself was about creation.

The Beginning

The beginning is about the location of the play: the physical location here in Austin. I think it’s noteworthy to mention that the theater is located behind a Goodwill job center. It’s hard to find because there isn’t a lot here. There’s a field across the street, and a railroad crossing. The Blue Theater looks like a giant piece of blue Bubble Yum stuck behind a bunch of tractor trailers that dispense disinfectant-smelling clothing to the phenomenal girth of thrift stores that speckle the city. Outside the box office, there were props from other productions that might have been thrift-store throwaways. These included a red toilet and an empty refrigerator that reminded me of a fifth grade video that warned not to get into one of these things if you found it at a dump.

But inside, a strong sound system, layered seating, and simple but effective lighting proved the space could rival smaller venues in much bigger cities. In that way, a tiny workshop production about a giant city with the biggest ego in the world felt right at home here in Austin’s most interesting permanent performance space.

The Middle

There is so much going on at once. In a yuppie apartment building, a novelist and her teenage daughter bicker like sisters while the younger one flaunts the sex life her mother wishes she had. Across the street, a pretty maid watches soaps and sleeps in a hotel room where one-night stands and bomb plotting terrorists enter and exit like snippets of drama in a voyeuristic dream play. And there is that business man and his secretary and their invention, not to mention their passion for adulterous sex with dildos. They all watch each other, each fabricating stories about the other while we in turn watch them. It’s like a twisted Rear Window, where all the characters talk over each other so we don’t really know where to pay attention. There is so much going on, it can be hard to follow the story -- until finally my mind settles in like it does when watching Shakespeare, and suddenly I understand how to follow all of it.

It is a story about disconnection in an age of technology. It is also a story about collective paranoia. Both are important subjects to tackle but are astoundingly complicated to depict. The Proximitator is working on capturing these phenomena, and with this workshop the play’s creators are doing it the right way: by connecting with the audience to hear how to do it better.

End Proximitator.

Begin Blue 60.

Blue 60

Blue 60 is named after the Blue Theater. It is put on by the company that calls that space its home. It was not performed there, though. It was performed in the Long Center -- Austin’s newest performance space that will host symphonies and ballets. The Long Center is surrounded by a lush, green park and fancy lights. If the other Fuse Box locales were garage rock, this space is classical.

Blue 60 has become a staple show of the Fuse Box festival. It is not one performance. It is 60. Each performance lasts 60 seconds. Each performance is like an unrelated sentence in an essay. A sneeze travels 100 miles in 60 seconds. What does a 60-second performance look like? One looked like a poet reading haiku. Another was a Mary Poppins lookalike who rushed around the audience giving us all lollipops with paper that said things. Mine said, “A sneeze travels a hundred miles in sixty seconds.” (A friend asked me how anyone could know that was true.) Another looked like a woman giving out cookies for us all to eat together. And another was a woman dancing to hair metal and ripping off her purple gown to show her breasts.

It all went very quickly. Some ran out of time. Some finished early. This usually resulted in awkward humor where the performer had to just stand there until the gong signaled time. It was also awkward when a woman with a maimed leg surveyed the audience, asking who had a gimp fetish.

The overall effect of this experiment was giddiness. It was like a high school talent show with actual talented people. There were hysterical moments and even a cheeseball made in a minute. There were sad moments -- like a video of a dying Grandma. And there were less than entertaining performances. Fortunately, those could only last 60 seconds. It was fun and weird and stupid and brilliant at the same time. And that was 30 quick sentences about Blue 60.

Reggie Watts

The next night, I came back to the Long Center to see Reggie Watts turn the same stage into at least 60 performances, all performed by him. Reggie Watts is Superman. This makes sense, because he tells a long story about his good friend Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. Reggie Watts, like Iron Man, can do just about anything. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell which voice coming from the man’s throat is really him.

The first thing to know about Reggie Watts is that he has some of the world’s biggest hair. It is enormous. He was in the audience at Blue 60 the night before, and the person next to me muttered, “Oh my God, he better sit in the damn back row.” His afro, which is much more Sideshow Bob than ?uestlove, makes him look a lot like a tree in spring. It sways. Somehow, this is important to his performance.

He came out onto a blackened stage, picked up a microphone and began telling a story to the wall. He sounded like a professor rambling about the history of a small Texas town a hundred miles north of Austin and kept referring to “here in Denton.” Then he acted like he just noticed that his audience was to his left, turned, and his voice melted into an English accent describing the intricate features of the sound pedal on a stool in front of him at what he called “station three.” The long, British lecture became a wandering slew of monotonous topics unrelated to anything else he had been talking about. As if he’d just forgotten who he was and where he was, suddenly the long history of plantation farming in Jamaica was of utmost importance to the cultural leanings of the industrial sugar cane manufacturing known around the continent as plantasia. This phenomenon continued to grow a large cult following until the banana uprising of 1823 that sent a catastrophic earthquake down the center of Mexico. It was here that things began to turn ugly. He didn’t say any of that, but that’s what it was like: just a series of bone-dry improvisations that established the tone of “I am Reggie Watts and you motherfuckers have no idea what I’m going to do tonight!”

The next hour or so was one of the most fantastic, outrageous and creative concoctions of storytelling, comedy, and music that I’d ever heard. And he does it all himself. He’s like a hip hop Andy Kaufman, a comparison too straightforward to be fair, although he has won something called the Andy Kaufman Award. The guy breaks off into absolutely absurd tangents like the time he “decided to turn gay” and go to a club called the Manhole. Suddenly he’s taken us into a secret opening in the side of the building that reveals a time warp to some mystical cavern where the soundscape sounds like Peter Gabriel getting even more World Music than he already has. Except, the “soundscape” is Watts, looping his voice through a tiny effects pedal, making the sounds of animals, tribal beats, and an ethereal female voice that could beckon sailors to a deadly island. Apparently Reggie’s one of the few people on the planet who has a ten-octave vocal range, which he uses to create bizarre characters and sick, sick beats. He somehow slides from new age ambiance to a story about wizards to a head-bobbing German political battle rap in the same breath. And it’s all from his voice! (Did I say that already?) His encore finale had all of us in the crowd pretending to put a “shit” on top of a “fuck”, chanting “Fuck, Shit, Stack,” and it was hard to tell if we were a part of a joke or nodding our heads at a serious hip-hop show that could send Jay-Z and Rick Rubin running to their MPC’s to cop his style. YouTube this dude: he is the shit.

Cape Disappointment

Where Watts tells stories that go nowhere or to another planet, the last production I saw was as straightforward a play as something by Thornton Wilder. Except...there was no story: just the pieces that would be in a story if it were there. It’s tough to describe the Brooklyn-based Debate Society’s Cape Disappointment. Imagine hot summertime nights. Driving late at night with the radio on. Bugs hit the windshield. The seats are sticky. Imagine a pedophile and a little girl.

That’s a good enough setup for the play. It takes place outside of Detroit in a time when people dressed like farmers and used the word “jeepers” a lot. Imagine I’m using a Midwestern accent and sound a little like a Great Uncle telling you a story on the front porch. Maybe I’m telling you about the time the circus came to town. Except it wasn’t a circus, it was a manmade lake that was going to change the town’s industry forever. They built a lighthouse there. But the water never came, and now there’s a lighthouse and no water.

That’s Cape Disappointment. It’s like a series of nostalgic moments and suspenseful setups that never explain themselves. It’s four actors doing magical jobs becoming multiple characters who almost seem like caricatures from 1950s TV shows about the Midwest: they would seem slightly insane if they acted that way in real life. It’s thrilling, it’s twisted, and it’s funny, but it never actually tells a story. It makes you feel the way you would in a suspenseful play that has a linear plot; it just doesn’t have that line to hold on to. If Wilders’s Our Town didn’t have a three-act structure, it would be very much like Cape Disappointment. I certainly haven’t seen anything quite like this before.

By the time this festival had ended I had become all too familiar with the feeling of walking away from a theater in a colorful stupor -- the feeling that something had just happened and my mind had yet to catch up. All of Fuse Box felt surreal, no, sub-real. Like it was just toying with the notion of traditional communication, twisting the conventions that our minds use to process information to shake down the unquestioned assumptions we use to interpret our reality. But maybe even that’s too deep. Maybe it felt like a toy box had been opened and I got to spend the week playing with everything inside. Now I’m telling stories about it myself, just another voice in the conversation taking place here in Austin. And that seems to be what Fuse Box is all about. Better than Wonderland.

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