It’s pretty clever when a theatrical production adopts the stance that what it is about to present you with is nothing more than offensive, odious rubbish. And when it does so persistently, warning you at each interval that things are only going to get worse, more unbearable, it seems cleverer, because you have no one to blame but yourself for hanging around. And when each performance or act hones so close to the edge of becoming merely cacophonous insult, while convincing you that the method in this apparent chaos is quite sound, well, that makes it even more clever. In fact, everything about Inverse Theater‘s Smoke the New Cigarette by Kirk Wood Bromley at the Bowery Poetry Club is exceptionally clever; so clever it hurts.
We are “presented” with a radio broadcast, purporting to be live, while actually played on a recording. The unseen broadcasting DJ is recounting his introduction to an acquaintance with a new-form music duo calling themselves The New Cigarette, who describe their sound, which purposely has dispensed with both tone and rhythm (!) as “chamber punk” – a punk sensibility rendered on traditional chamber orchestra instruments. What we actually see are five “recorded” performances – the only ever made during the band’s lifetime – played live by the duo, Senstarv and Egon, on cello, piano, trombone, flute and drums – as allegedly witnessed by the broadcaster. These musical performances – free-form, dissonant, with accompanying poetry recitation – are the make-up of the show. They are framed throughout in a cascading, verbose monologue by the broadcaster, who is at pains to describe how at each successive exposure, he is convinced of the group’s worthlessness, even while finding himself recalled again and again in order to confirm this appraisal. He is gripped by a repulsion/attraction dynamic and it is the show’s intention that we are captured too. Can anything that compels our attention again and again be essentially without merit? Without meaning for us? This little confection will place you on the rack of that dilemma, and stretch and stretch.
What will keep you in your seat is the writerly language deployed throughout – in lyrics and in narrative – and the exquisitely rendered noise. A sample of Bromley’s scintillating phrases run – “Please don’t outlive me if I deadbeat myself”; “Show me mine and I’ll show you yours”; “Flush the birds from your binoculars”; “harmonious punishment, you are not exempt”. But every line is some such rich gem of nonsense and you can do yourself an injury trying to unpack each fleeting allusion. It is not a simple coincidence that the narrating broadcaster seems to have sipped from the same poetic cup as the musicians. The musical performances, appropriately, can be hard to sit through, but they are played with such a concentrated attention, such lucid particularity and skill, that you can only admire, even as you are tempted to place your hands over your ears. In one piece the duo are joined by guest musicians and performers and the orchestrated chaos of sound and movement is genuinely impressive. Purportedly satirizing the musical and artistic avant-garde, while mocking the hipster urge to be alternative, New Cigarette somehow succeeds at celebrating both. While ridiculing them. While inhabiting the same space. It delivers the wisest of nonsense, formally as well as linguistically; and the tenderest of uproars, sonically as well as phonetically.
Applause is due to all concerned. Performers include Leah Schrager, Beth Griffith, Peter Schmitz, and the author himself, Kirk Wood Bromley. A roster of different visiting musicians are featured each performance and the evening I attended it was The Broadcloth Trio, who seamlessly entered the fracas. John Gideon is the punctilious sound master, and Bettina Warshaw the stage manager. It would be difficult to say, but I’m sure no one put a foot wrong.
A performance about performance which takes on the thick end of the avant-garde wedge, mocking while championing, at once lisping and orating, this sly serving of effrontery is an unusually sophisticated piece of theatre. Absolutely and unreservedly not for everyone, go, savor the disaffectation, and don’t forget your brain.