On Saturday Gerard Byrne staged his one-night Performa 11 work “In Repertory” under the stage of the Abrons Arts Center, in a dank, low-ceilinged rehearsal studio.
Without any introduction, a variety of young actors (white, black, foreign-accented, male and female) entered, one at a time, each performing an audition monolog. After consulting inaudibly with Byrne, they performed again. In less than an hour, a half-dozen actors did snatches of famous plays-Romeo and Juliet, Waiting for Godot, Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The actors weren’t informed in the online advertisement to which they responded that they were going to perform before an audience-only that they would audition. By and large, they seemed overwhelmed by the rush to production, but that’s the effect Byrne looks for. There were so many choices to make instantaneously: how to face performing without warning or time to prepare; how to use the room; how to handle a standing crowd breathing and shuffling a few feet away; whether to engage with the props Byrne had supplied.
Aside from the deception, Byrne treated the actors well. With his thinning red hair and plain, rumpled clothes, he was a gentle presence, clutching the actors’ headshots, softly inhabiting the edges of the room, and whispering discreetly as he gave them direction.
Though Byrne didn’t share the notes he gave to the actors before they repeated their monologues, the second performance was always markedly different. In his first go, a man with long dreadlocks delivered a rip-roaring rendition of Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab from the first act of Romeo and Juliet. He commanded the space, punching the air, moving about freely and vigorously employing the props that Byrne had installed. In his second run, the man performed the passage as a lament, and remained fixed in one spot.
Brecht wrote of actors showing something like a slipped mask, the character as written but also the actor playing the role. By foregrounding the audition process, “In Repertory” rendered this effect visceral. Our Mercutio’s first reading was so filled with energy that the audience laughed and smiled and backed away hurriedly as he commanded the space and seized props in rapid succession. The second time, his stillness and temperate tone caused the audience to stay close-by, quietly listening. The two renditions made the actor more visible as the point connecting the two versions of Mercutio. Similarly, the actor drew attention to himself in the second go, when momentary blanks in his memory halted the flow of his polished speech, as he visibly and audibly digested the changes required by the notes Byrne had given him. Talking to Byrne between the two runs, he was also plainly out of character.
Byrne is working in an area occupied by American artists such as Alix Pearlstein, Liz Magic Laser and David Levine, who employ professional actors and elements of theater to question the rules of performance and stagecraft and to create provocative works that are not conventional drama but an interesting hybrid. For example, in an ongoing project begun in 2006, A country road. A tree. Evening, Byrne presents a series of luridly lit photographs that evoke the desolate spot where the action of Waiting for Godot takes place.
Thus far in Performa 11, “In Repertory” stands out as a rare event in which an intimacy with the audience is productively created. The performance had genuine spontaneity and a compelling conceptual spin.
The Nov. 5 performance was filmed, and the footage will be presented Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 12–13, 4–7 pm at Abrons Art Center.