Rubber Repertory's 'Red Cans' is an experiment in new realms, one that puts you in another world, and so long as you bring your curiosity, you'll be surprised how engaging this world is
Reviewed by Hannah Kenah, Fri., Aug. 18, 2006
The Off Center, through Aug. 19
Running time: 55 min
A skinny man and his skinny dog are standing in front of the gate, blocking your way into the Off Center. You're here to see Red Cans, the newest installment in Rubber Repertory's repertoire. If you know anything about the company, you may already suspect that this is part of the act. Once inside, you see a dimly lit stage, a cage, and a ladder. Sure enough, just as the show is about to begin, the skinny man enters and puts the dog inside the cage. The dog is scared, and Red Cans has begun.
Is your stomach turning? Those of the PETA persuasion will have some bones to pick with this show. So will those of the straight-theatre-with-words-and-plot-lines persuasion. So will anyone expecting to see anything even remotely similar to other theatre they have seen. Truth is, this show is pretty much a viewing nightmare for large swaths of the general populace ... and truth is, this show is great.
Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope, co-directors of Red Cans, are billing it as "a new species of performance." This is an accurate statement. The evening is a hybrid of theatre, dance, puppetry, visual art, contortionism, and evolution. At some point during the show, you are likely to lift up your feet, hide your purse, and secure any other loose possessions like a roller coaster, only you're at the theatre. Keep all legs and arms inside the play.
An unrecognizable life-form scoots onto the stage: a glowing red cylindrical creature. In under a minute, the audience is laughing at the novelty, the humor, the oddity. The dog in the cage is a reflection of our own response: part fascination, part hesitation. Suddenly the can makes a strange calling sound. From the dark comes a response, and more red cans emerge. These move with their legs. The next ones use only their arms. Later, we see the leader, the religion, the rebels, and the coup.
Ultimately, Red Cans is a strong work of political theatre. Some political theatre is outright, some is subtle, some is accidental. This piece is a combination of the latter two. Red Cans provides a strong, evocative template on which to paste your own ideas: insurgents, grotesque new leadership, oppressed peons, hierarchy, abuse. All in the guise of this new species of performance.
Of course, with new species come new problems.
The continual barrage of events amounts to a lack of cohesion. The relationship between the cans and the "insides" (as the actors are labeled) is underdeveloped. At times the cans are precious, at times ignored, at times weapons, at times shells. It's not a tight piece. There are loose ends. There are images for image's sake. The actors get lost. The logic of the world gets thin. The audience has to work much harder than it does when a play is literal, linear.
But Red Cans is an experiment. Not an experiment in a new medium (I can't image legions of other theatre companies being inspired to create hamper work) but an experiment in new realms. Asking the question: Would theatre be more vital if it did things that resembled no other thing? The piece is transformative, escapist. You are in another world, and it is continually surprising how engaging this world is.
The only real disappointment is the ending. After one solid hour of incredibly hard work, the actors unfold themselves and limp off stage. There is no curtain call. The audience was prepared to give an ovation but had to settle for confused applause that ended prematurely. A standard rule of thumb ought to be: If your actors spend an hour inside hampers with panty hose over their heads, let them take a bow.
Red Cans has one of the most effective and heart-wrenching images I have ever witnessed on stage. The moment has an element of surprise and deserves not to be spoiled. All I will say is that it involves one of the lower-class cans finding its feet and a new pair of shoes. Look for it. If you don't find it, you'll find something else of interest. So long as you bring your curiosity, you're in for an evening of unexpected engagements.