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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Genius and Frustration in Reggie Watts' Transition

Posted by Alison Hallett on Sat, Sep 6, 2008 at 1:05 PM


If you saw Reggie Watts perform Disinformation at TBA last year, you'll probably be disappointed by his new show. Transition isn't bad--in fact, parts of it are amazing--but it's more produced, more conceptual, and less immediately gratifying than last year's jawdropper. Disinformation was an absolutely riveting introduction to Reggie's bag of tricks: the beatboxing, the complex, multi-layer songs looped with an effects pedal, the insanely weird and funny stream-of-consciousness rants in which language mutated and deteriorated.

Transition was developed by Reggie and co-producer Tommy Smith at the urging of TBA Artistic Director Mark Russell, and it's still a very young show--when I spoke with Reggie and Tommy last week, they were still putting things together, and I expect the shifting pastiche of mini-narratives, absurd videos, songs, and monologues that makes up Transition will see some refinement even over the course of the three-night TBA run.

The best moments of Transition remind the audience that there are some sophisticated minds behind this seemingly hodgepodge post-modern cabaret. A video device invented specifically for the show (and which I will not ruin for those who haven't seen it by explaining) is brilliantly used to evoke the internet's great paradox: The web offers people a tremendous power to connect and network and maintain relationships, but only by way of creating an online avatar that isn't quite you at all. It's handily the highlight of the show, which otherwise includes absurd videos showcasing a Monty Python-esque comedic sensibility, not-quite-sketch skits that gently deconstruct romance, and of course Reggie's beatboxing and improvising. Reggie also told a very long story about robo-tripping that just went on and on, getting more outlandish just when you thought it was about to end--an entertaining but frustrating interlude that reminded me of something Tommy said in our interview last week:

A lot of stage entertainment and a lot of plays and a lot of
experimental works are geared towards just causing pleasure in the
audience. "Let's excite them, let's entertain them...." There are so
many different ways to respond to something that I think frustration is
a valid thing to make someone feel, as long as you reward them with
supreme entertainment at the end of the frustration.
If you get pissed
off for a little bit of the show, and you are frustrated with the thing
that you are looking at, and then suddenly, there is an amazing dance
sequence to a beat box solo, the reward of that for the audience is
greater than if we just showed them the dance. There is something about
time and duration, where you can wear the audience down for a certain
portion and then give them something that is very great and wonderful
and amazing, then you will stick with it next time the frustrating
thing comes along.

That is a very accurate description of what it's like to watch Transition. Moments of "frustration" certainly occur, and the audience simply waits them out, thinking that a joke is misfiring or that Reggie's meandering monologue is going to end with a punchline any minute now... The question, then, becomes: Why? Why play with the audience, just because you can? Reggie said in our interview that he wanted his show to be "catlike," inscrutable but still compelling, and it is certainly that. Thing is, though, as much as I love my cat, he's not inscrutable because he's thinking about Very Serious Things. He's inscrutable because he has a teeny, tiny little brain. Reggie and Transition are much smarter than my cat, and I wanted more. More to think about, more ideas, more payoff. More communication, less manipulation. The unpredictability and audacity of Reggie and his cast kept the audience off-balance, laughing and confused, uncertain but interested. They had the audience right where they wanted them, but then didn't give any suggestion as to why they wanted them there. It was frustrating. Which means that, by its own terms at least, the show was a success.

If you've got a pass and you're planning to see Reggie at the Winningstad tonight or tomorrow, get there early--tickets are sold out.

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