When you enter the lobby of The Downstairs Theatre at La MaMa, it’s as if you’ve punctured another dimension. The space has been transformed into a mind-bending realm of sculpture, color and light, pulsing with sound and even scent.
Humanoids clad in white HazMat suits cavort about, engaging with each other and with mystified theatergoers. These curious beings repeatedly mutter something about existence as being “indescribable.”
Which pretty much sums up the experience of “Generator: Pestilence Part 1,” the cryptic live art creation written and directed by veteran performance artists Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, in association with Allied Productions. The thrust of this ambitious piece seems more about sensory perception than about narrative.
Not that words don’t play a part. We meet an androgynous host of sorts named Technology (the charismatic Bryce Payne) who leads us from the immersive preshow to the main theater, preparing us for a journey into “the Void.” Spoken-word poetry replaces traditional dialogue. This spirit guide urges us to free our minds and consider “endless possibility: what could have been merges with what could become.”
Over the course of an hour or so, we witness the genesis of life, from a single-cell organism to complex life forms, which evolve into mythical beasts, then primates, then into humans who must learn social skills and develop language.
The story is told not only by Technology but by a troupe of wildly costumed dancers and via a series of astonishing videos. The evocative score, by John Michael Swartz, is performed by NYOBS, an “alternative experimental free association queer skinned kitchen band,” according to the program. Comprised of Mike Cacciatore, Cramer, Swartz, and Waters, the band produces discordant tunes, percussive blasts, primal screams, and other sounds impossible to describe.
Given the expressionistic, otherworldly themes, you might expect the band to feature an electronic keyboard or synthesizer, but they opt for an old-timey piano instead.
With its heady mix of low and high tech, this is not a slick production, and that’s by design. Yes, there are video projections and lighting effects. But in the tradition of micro-budget, experimental downtown theater, the piece also incorporates simple materials in innovative ways. For instance, the throbbing primordial ooze is created by cast members writhing beneath a huge plastic tarp.
The “scent score,” courtesy of Ethan Shoshan, is drawn from agarwood and moss lichen to provide an olfactory complement to the action onstage. They even hand out scent samples to bring home as you exit the theater.
Despite intermittent moments of striking, often haunting imagery, the spectacle can become overwhelming, if not bewildering. Some speeches delivered by Technology feel overwrought, and any coherent messages are lost in the maelstrom.
“Generator: Pestilence Part 1” is the first of a three-part cycle merging science and technology to examine the nature of origins. Although press materials describe the piece as a “meditation on the AIDS epidemic as cultural phenomenon,” I missed any clear references to this theme, except in the title. Perhaps the topic will be explored in Part 2 or Part 3.
GENERATOR: PESTILENCE PART 1 | The Downstairs Theatre at La MaMa, 66 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Mar. 1: Thu.- Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 5 p.m. | $25 at lamama.org | Ninety mins., with no intermission