Temporary Distortion’s Newyorkland tells the story of four New York City cops and the difficulties that they have living in society with that title. Like all of Temporary Distortion’s work, Newyorkland is told through a mix of projections and intense sound scape over a restrained physical performance of the actors performing in tight confined boxes. If the goal of this was to get across the isolating depression of NYPD life, then Temporary Distortion did their job. The performance of the actors usually felt empty and second tier to the tech. At times the actors would watch projections of themselves, without looking like they were really taking in what was on the screen. Near the end of the performance Ronny, the cop who’s life we have seen most completely, muses on cop culture and that sometimes the world is “like living in a television show.” This is the closest explanation for why there was so much focus on watching the screen, but it comes so late that it can’t really save what has already occurred.
The first big shift in projection at the top of the show does work though, as do a few other sequences. At the beginning of the performance the cops enter their cubicles. One cop is focused on in the center cubicle with work lights. He is surrounded by police monitors, typewriters, and paper work. As the sound scape shifts, the projection on the wall around him begins to shift to a scrolling view of New York City streets. As the backdrop and sound set the feel of a 1970’s cop film cruising through the streets, the young officer in the cubicle pulls out a gun and raises it up slowly. Watching this on a screen feels safe and harmless, but it can only be imagined that being an audience member who has a gun pointed at them at the top of the show feels a certain way. It does exactly what it does in real life, it separates the police from the community. It creates the persona that keeps the police at a distance. I’m not certain if this is what makes it hard to get into the head of these characters for the rest of the play, or if it is just that for the rest of the play there is a similar feeling that ‘it is really hard to understand how isolating it is to be these guys.’
During some moments in the play, the cubicles would be completely dark, no actors lit, and there would just be a projection. Moments like this in theatre tend to annoy me because if I wanted to see a movie I would have paid my $15 at Regal Fenway and snuck in a bag on m&ms. Especially in a piece like this, which is supposed to help the audience understand the struggles of day to day police life, why keep us at an arms length with a screen? I have very strong opinions on this, so I will put them aside, share them more in my thoughts on The Andersen Project and just take it for what it was.
One montage that I did find engaging as a piece of film was Ronny’s drug bust montage. The pacing was quick and on the ball and reminded me of movies like The Departed. How it faded in was seamless in the storytelling, and was mysterious about what was going on. Ronny, dressed in a leather jacket and out of uniform, is undercover buying drugs. At first the thought I had was, “Oh man! They are talking about the dirty business of cops breaking their own rules!” but as soon as the thought entered my mind, he took out a badge and chase began. All of it was quick and constantly moving. More cops arrived, and like the drug dealer, I had no idea where they were coming from. I was not sure who I was really cheering for during the sequence, but at the end, as casually dressed Ronny smokes a celebratory cigarette, I felt like I was with him in his accomplishment.
Another interesting projection sequence occurred when the police lights turned into the faces of the officers on stage. Each light kept spinning in the classic red and blue, but illuminated the officers face. As this happened the cops listed the reasons people dislike cops, and how that effects their perception of the world. The projection showed how those blue and red lights alter our perception of these people. They blind us to their true character and that they are actual human beings. Also, the layering in, and transition from the general public’s opinion, to how that jades the officers is quite effective. With the public going around looking down on these people, it easy for them to become the villains we make them out to be. This made me start thinking about some of the Occupy Wall street footage I have seen. As soon as the cops show up, people begin to get uneasy. They say horrible things to them, and end up provoking them to do something extreme. It is the social mask, and the glass and shields that alter our perception of these people. To an angry crowd they are people who arrive to and then chaos ensues. From the outside it is clear that they are their just people doing their jobs and keeping people safe. Also, it is a classic case of shooting the messenger. The police that are out on the street patrolling on the day to day are really enforcing someone’s rules. They don’t have a say in it, and are just taking orders.
There is a section of particularly moving acting (unfortunately done in a projection instead of onstage, but I move forward) where Ronny talks about this issue directly. He shares how the reality of a cop is altered by the things they see. That they always have to be on guard, 24/ 7. Everything has the potential for violence. He goes through a grocery list of typical dangerous situations that might be familiar from any slew of cop dramas, but then shares that you never expect the little old lady to pull out a shotgun when you pull her over. “She’s the joker in the deck,” he explains. During this sequence, Ronny has been walking home from work. He is done with his day, musing on life, and headed home to his wife. When he enters his apartment, his wife is the joker waiting in the deck. She reams into him about how he hasn’t been home from days, refuses to believe that it has to do with work, and ends in kicking him out of the house. This whole sequence beautifully brings together the work and home life of an officer. The lines are blurry, and there are sacrifices. The actress playing his wife had earlier given a monologue (via projection) about how she had learned to accept Ronny’s life as a cop. This other montage though shows how things always change. It is at any given moment that living with a cop can become too much.
In an interview with the director, Kenneth Collins, explains this phenomenon. He grew up in a family of cops, and there was always a sense of danger. It was the danger of, “Will he come home?” and how that effected the family. His family kept tabs on everyone’s safety by constantly listening to a police monitor. The feeling of this is in the performance through the Ronny sections, but also in a few moments with the rookie. A young officer calls his mother. She is worried about his safety, and nervous because he is calling so late. He does the best to reassure her, but it is clear that he is putting on a bit of an act. There are obvious dangers he is protecting her from, and as sounds shift back to a police monitor, we get that glimpse of why Collins has created this piece.
The last segment of the performance drops the projections (and I could not have been happier) and begins with an exploration of the space using flashlights. The set, which I have only alluded to thus far, is made up of three tight cubicles all separated by more of the projections screen that hangs above them. Each cubicle is encased with scratched and battered plexiglass shields in the front. There is a separation throughout the entire performance caused by this literal barrier. In the cubicles there are monitors, typewriters, cabinets, and microphones that the actors use on and off. Each microphone uses some level of distortion to make the actor sound like they are coming over a radio. As the flashlight shines through these dark spaces from behind, it picks up slight small details. Each actor is standing in their unit with an American flag on one side, and the image of a cop ready to shoot on the other. They are between responsibility and stereotype. This moment feels pure and removed from the over stimulation of the rest of the play.
As the lights rise to a warm glow, the cast begins to sing. The sound is distorted to sound like many more than four people are joining their voices together for this moment. It is a moment of purity and togetherness like in Young Jean Lee’s use of song in The Shipment. It takes us back to basic goals of unity, and communication. The New York Police see enough trausma that they need to form their own family with eachother. Once the song reaches its peaks, and the lights have entirely filled the stage, it drops to black. Everything is silence and we are left with the presence of this overwhelming force of people.
And when the lights raise again they are different than they have been during any other point of the performance. They are cold and white like the light of the early afternoon, and are accompanied with nature sounds. The scrolling city projection is back, and I believe is very effective in this moment. It is understood that there are peaceful moments in these mens lives, and moments of calm. This is a nice shift, and really appreciated. It is effectively using all of the tech work that they have layered in before, but this times the pieces match up. During this section one of the officers steps out of his cubicle, removes his hat, and on the projection begins to hang a memorial to fallen officers. Each token is held and used with such specificity that it is something of value. Each cross, photograph, and flower has meaning. They are honoring people lost, and without saying anything that is able to be interpreted.
While this is happening, Ronny exits his cubicle and he shares his thoughts at the end of the day. It takes the entire 70 minute performance for the audience to really enter the tragedy of being in these officer’s lives. With Ronny, and the memorial being built we see the space between their jobs and who they are. It is really eery as Ronny shares in a monotonous voice how he sees people differently, and has moments where he can’t find control.
Overall, I didn’t really find this performance satisfying. I couldn’t jump into it, and I feel as if I have only gained some small insights to the lives of the NYPD. It could be that the material is too removed from my own life, or that I have issues with the heavy reliance on projections. I enjoy more physical work in the acting, and if Temporary Distortions mission is to create “physically limited” pieces, than I don’t see myself jumping on ship with them any time soon. But that is just my own bias coming into this.
Check it out for yourself at http://www.ontheboards.tv/performance/theater/newyorkland