The Hinterlands makes art out of archives in “The Radicalization Process”
HAMTRAMCK,Mich.–There’s an intriguing new piece of theatre being performed in Hamtramck. The Radicalization Process, presented by The Hinterlands at a venue simply called Play House, is “a two-year long investigation exploring radical art, politics, and extremist beliefs in American culture. Layering historical accounts of the radical left in the 1960s and 70s with a master class in American method acting, socialist pageantry, and a gleefully obtuse re-production of The Living Theatre’s ‘Antigone,’ The Radicalization Process stokes the embers of America’s past revolutions to ignite our radical potential.”
Normally I wouldn’t quote so much from a press release in the writing of my review. But a show such as this one — and what a show it is! — is difficult to describe, let alone critique. Call it “experimental” or “avant-garde,” if you’d like. I call it “spectacular,” for it is a spectacle.
The show begins the second we walk through the door of the old house where the happening takes place. (Yes, an actual house — not a theatre, per se.) The smell of musty wood smacks you in the face, a reminder that theater is a five-sensory art form. Our host, Liza Bielby, leads us down into the basement where she explains the origin of the piece we are about to see. To paraphrase, someone found a bunch of old boxes in the basement of the old house, filled with a bunch of old materials dating back to the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s. Among these items: pamphlets from General Motors, literature about the Black Panthers, draft papers, items on acting and the Living Theatre’s production of “Antigone.” According to Bielby, “an archive was created out of materials we found.” This archive, now contained in a dozen or so file-folder boxes, serves as the basis for the Hinterlands’ latest production.
While perusing through the boxes, other spectators begin to arrive. To make a blanket statement, they look like hipsters. The men wear shaggy beards and dark-framed eyeglasses. One guy listens to a portable cassette player — not with ear buds but actual headphones, circa 1985. There’s a slight scent of patchouli among the crowd. You get a sense of the type of theater we’re about to see just by the people who’ve shown up to see it. They are, for the most part, young and appear to be lower-middle class. Maybe that’s just part of their persona?
After about 15 minutes or so, Bielby, who seems a bit shy and almost apologetic during the basement portion of the piece, announces that she’d like to read from a letter that was found among the archive. Written by a woman, it begins with the line “I set the timer.” Soon we realize that the woman is a radical, en route to an airport with a bomb inside a suitcase that she will plant inside a women’s restroom where it will, presumably, explode. Suddenly, Bielby goes from shy and unassuming to steadfast and secure, as she becomes the radical woman. She leads us up yet another set of stairs, red suitcase in tow, into the living room of the house where we find two men, her apparent cohorts, in the process of making a bomb.
Over the next 90 minutes, from a row of wood folding chairs positioned alongside the perimeter of the room, we observe several different stories: the radical woman and her bomb-making buddies, a method acting class with a teacher reminiscent of Uta Hagen, the tragic tale of “Antigone.” All are told well; Bielby being the strongest member among the cast of three (the two men are credited as Richard Newman and Dave Sanders, but the program does not delineate who is who), as if she’s not an actor in a play but an actual woman living out her life before an audience.
The show also features many highly theatrical moments: Bielby hoists the younger of the two men onto her back and carries him around, as if dancing a dance; a secret compartment to a suitcase is opened and a rubble of dried leaves dumps out onto the floor; the actors march about singing in French. A woman looks down on us from up in the rafters where she sits manning the lights and sound. With the push of a button, she causes a suitcase-style record player to kick on and actually play. It’s all riveting.
And yet, it’s all a bit confusing.
For me, this is the problem with “experimental” theater. It doesn’t matter how good the actors are or how awesome the set looks (Shoshanna Utchenik’s painstakingly detailed recreation of a 1960s living room — minus most of the walls and all of the ceiling, with a papier mache tree growing “outside”) or how well a bunch of different accounts discovered in a bunch of old boxes are linked together… If the audience can’t follow what’s happening.
Maybe it’s just me. I like to think I’m an intelligent person. It’s not like I didn’t understand what was going on (a group of radicals; an acting school; a production of “Antigone”)… It just feels like this type of theater is geared to a particular type of audience. Intellectuals, maybe? And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with a piece of theater that makes us think. Sometimes we don’t have to have a clear beginning, middle and end with a protagonist who wants something and, in the end, either gets it or doesn’t.
After all, we are talking about radicals here. And The Radicalization Process is definitely anything but conventional theater.