ROB ROTH’S “SOUNDSTAGE” FIRES UP ACOUSTIC IMAGINARIES - by KaiChieh Tu | 22nd Sep 2018
Soundstage, conceived by residency artist Rob Roth at HERE, is a compelling stream of consciousness that flows along with the sound waves and vintage film footage. With stunning technicality and poetic sensitivity, the show paints and composes the complex emotions when we are left alone, discarded and exiled into our most profound addictions and desires.
There are two characters, MAN and WOMAN, but only one is physically present on the stage. Played by Roth himself, we see Man wears a nightgown and paints his nails gold before the show starts. An old TV, mirror, make-up case, video cassettes, pill bottles, and VCR are dispersed in front of him on the table. Behind him, an elaborate camera is mounted on a dolly system and track loop. We are already transported into mixed realities of various time and space, of theatre and theatre-making.
The live cinematography that Roth’s team is able to achieve in HERE’s relatively small theatre space is quite impressive. The first tracking shot beautifully captures Roth’s subtle gestures of queer performativity as camera crew (also dancers) moves slowly across the stage. At the same time, we hear Woman’s acousmatic voice. As we are looking for the source of her voice, a woman’s face is projected onto the wig head on the table. The illusion of her voice entering and occupying the mannequin’s head is convincingly disturbing. Videos and projections inundate theatre nowadays, yet it is rare to see such high-quality execution of all the technical characters including live streaming, facial projection, sound immersion (both live instruments and sound design), synchronization between live actor and pre-recorded footage.
Roth, a filmmaker who’s into films about making films, says in the interview with HERE, “I’ve always cringed at camcorder footage in theatre—the lens is terrible. So I kind of used it in past works, but wouldn’t do live stuff on stage because I always thought it looked and my aesthetic. So I’ve been waiting to get a film camera with interchangeable lenses on stage so that I could combine my two worlds, literally.”
As the disembodied, mysterious voice of Woman continues, Roth starts to play some films feature Woman as the leading role, and we finally begin to see her virtual presence in the screen. Played by extraordinary Rebecca Hall, Woman is a female lead figure who takes the spotlight in these films. Man’s addiction to Woman and these footage becomes more and more evident as they speak to each other across media and genres, and as their voices overlap and mix together. Reminiscent of a drag queen, Roth also lipsyncs her lines and bears a striking resemblance to her as their postures and manners synchronize seamlessly. As their voices merge, their identities and genders also tangle together. The auditory tapestry of voices and songs move audiences in between the real and the virtual, the aural and the visual, the male and the female. She becomes more real and grounded than him as he gets lost in substances, memory, masquerade, role-playing and, most likely, theatre-making as well.
Collaborating with Vangeline, a Butoh choreographer, Roth marries camerawork with this dark Japanese dance movement in Soundstage. The dancers operate the camera stylistically on the track loop and create slow-motion, corporeal choreography during Roth’s memorable songs. They serve as a mediator role, much like dark matter in the universe, who allows the time and space to bend and convert, and Man and Woman to hear each other in their acoustic imaginaries. The music and sound design are the critical elements to the overall success of the show. More, three cellists, partially hidden behind the projection screen, generate exceptional low-frequency vibrations of loneliness.
Roth took his inspiration from the memory of his grandma.
“I just had the memory of watching old films with her as a very young child. She would watch them a lot and smoke cigarettes in her apartment in Washington Heights. It seemed ritualistic to me that she would sit in the same chair,” he describes.
Ruth successfully composes various sonic and visual worlds that are in parallel with each other. When they converge, they harmonize beautifully. But most of the time they remain autonomous, contrasting or confronting each other in unexpected theatrical ways.
The theme of addition is felt through the show, and it has to do with Roth’s interest in alchemy, which he draws a comparison to modern pharmaceutical chemistry. Man inhales lines after lines of cocaine till his nose starts bleeding. One notable synchronized moment of stage and film features two characters ingest some unknown pills simultaneously. The scenes are split based on four alchemical colors: Black, White, Red, and Yellow. The colors, sounds, words, and images are all blended in the characters’ hallucinatory headspaces. Roth wants to explore an addiction that is a result of oppression and depression, especially for gay men.
“Throughout my career, I ’ve been fascinated with the archetype of the strong female lead character as both a reflection and salvation for gay men,” says Roth. “While a struggle with isolation and self-exile has been part of gay life, it seems less common for a younger generation. In my work, I hope to reveal a hidden history of queer individuals who came before, many of whom are no longer with us, who used fantasy as a means of survival and existence.”
Woman eventually dissipates into static in the screen and old TV. We hear the same raining sound in the beginning. Woman’s distant voice reemerges. The ritual has to repeat itself over and over again until, perhaps, one day he is free to express himself.
Roth opens up a queer, ambiguous space stretching into different realities and histories where we can all feel lonely and connected at the same time, where we can see the sounds and hear the colors. The whole audio-visual experience is like an alchemic (in modern-day terminology, ‘psychedelic’ might be more suitable) trip. Only this time these two characters might never wake up, or come down from the high.
Created and Directed by Rob Roth
Text by Jason Napoli Brooks and Rob Roth
Music by Yair Evnine, Rachelle Garniez, and Kamala Sankaram with lyrics by Rob Roth
Butoh choreography by Vangeline
Performed by Rob Roth (live) and Rebecca Hall (onscreen)
Previews: September 13–15 at 8:30pm; September 16 at 5pm
Opening: Monday, September 17 at 8:30pm
Regular performances: September 19–22, 25–29 at 8:30pm
Post-Performance Discussion: September 19 at 8:30pm
HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan)