Walker Art Center’s “Out There” series continued this past weekend with Gob Squad’s “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good).” Inspired by the Andy Warhol film, Gob Squad sought to recreate the movie as theater. Here’s a look at what the critics thought of the performance:
Warhol’s was a ragged little film with actors drifting in and out, flubbing whatever lines were written, smoking, talking, posing and prattling on. We wince at the banality of revolution, one actor assessing a cake thusly: “It’s a layer cake. Just like my life. One meaningless layer after another.” Dig it.
But it was Warhol, it was downtown, it was hip. Norman Mailer’s wrote that “I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look at ‘Kitchen’ and say ‘Yes that is the way it was in the late ’50s, early ’60s in America. That’s why they had the war in Vietnam.'”
Or maybe not.
The Gob Squad doesn’t so much lampoon the film as earnestly attempt to explore concepts that once seemed revolutionary. History, after all, teems with moments that we now consider embarrassingly trite, but often that’s because those once-fresh notions are now taken for granted. So we can laugh at Sharon Smith, puzzling over why she should burn her bra. What’s this proving? Oh right, something about feminism. Meanwhile, Simon Will is throwing breakfast cereal at her head. “I’m repressing you,” he offers helpfully.
What could become an overlong satire transforms when the Gob Squadders begin to pluck audience members to join and eventually replace the actors. Wearing headsets, the civilians take cues from troupe members, who have wandered to the back of the auditorium, murmuring into microphones. At one point, a civilian turns to actor Bastian Trost and says, “We’re real, you’re yesterday.”
Yes. The deposit of an actor’s work — in this case the film that is “being made”– is instantly past. The audience is alive. “Kitchen” is remade with all of us and we understand that it’s true, we’ve never had it so good.
The piece itself isn’t as much a recreation of the obscure film but a meditation on the influence it–and the rest of the 1960s counterculture–have had in the decades since Warhol and his Factory friends decided to make art in their own image. So instead of trying become Warhol or Edie Sedgwick or any of the other denizens of the Factory, they are instead themselves playing themselves in the film.
In and of itself, this action is a lot of fun. The actors are well aware of the absurdity of it all, but go for it with full gusto. The company, a British and German collective, play at their idea of what Americans of the era would be like, drinking instant “kwa-fee,” burning a bra (bought from Target, actor Sharon Smith admits), and trying on different personas along the way.
All this time, the barriers between the audience and the performers are broken down, as the cast selects people to first take part in the side films and then to take their places on the stage. Audience participation is nothing new, but there’s something startling about plucking someone out of the crowd, giving them a set of headphones (so the actor they are replacing can feed them lines and stage directions), and setting them off on the set.The actors then head out to take seats in the house, so you can hear them whispering lines and directions a moment before they are said onstage.
It’s the perfect embodiment of Warhol’s pop-art aesthetic, making regular members of the audience stars for their own “15 minutes” at the Walker. All of this heightens the feeling that anything could happen–one of the rarest reactions you’ll ever feel at a scripted theatrical event.
In the end, Gob Squad’s Kitchen reminded me of the late, very lamented Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Like that ensemble, the Gob Squad love to play with the very forms of theater itself and recraft it into something rare, thrilling, and beautiful.
Andy Warhol is a tough artist to riff on, because his work is so conceptually complete: it’s hard to start with a Warhol piece and turn it into something more than, or even simply other than, it is. His ideas–the embrace of mass production and commercialism, the genius of bald appropriation, the importance of chance–still seem revolutionary when applied to more conventional art, but if you try to apply them to Warhol, your piece just eats itself.
You can’t fault Gob Squad for lack of ambition. With recreated sets behind a large screen (audience members are invited to visit the sets before the show begins), the troupe members begin by self-consciously replicating Warhol’s films Sleep and Kitchen, as well as one of his “screen tests” in which subjects stare blankly at the camera for minutes on end. With great, intentional, awkwardness, constantly and ironically declaring their intentions, the troupe members pose in the kitchen and proceed to approximate the sloppy circumstances of Kitchen, in which cast members repeatedly forgot what they were supposed to be doing there in a kitchen in front of a movie camera.
In time, audience members replace the members of Gob Squad, who come out to the audience and feed directions to the “found actors” (Gob Squad’s term) through headsets receiving signals from wireless mics. As the audience members share very personal stories (repeating lines fed to them), attempt to sleep, and ultimately kiss a troupe member in a recreation of Warhol’s Kiss film, sound and editing are used in pursuit of drama, momentum, and a kind of minor profundity. At its best, Gob Squad’s Kitchen demonstrates the truth of Andy Warhol’s dictum that “virtually anyone can become famous.” By taking the mundane acts of (nothing personal, folks) mundane people and blowing them up both literally and figuratively, Warhol challenged the idea that art was qualitatively different from life.
But Gob Squad aren’t content to simply replicate Warhol–they have their own, more traditional tricks up their sleeves, and they’re not about to let those go. The resulting production is left in uneasy limbo: it never coheres as either a scripted entertainment or as an avant-garde experience. In this Kitchen, Gob Squad lose their cake and don’t eat it either.
Did you see Gob Squad’s Kitchen? If so, what did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section,