Since the pandemic began, American courts have brought millions of hearings online, a development known as “virtual justice.” Carl Hancock Rux’s elliptical “Vs”. adapts virtual justice to virtual theater. In this court the name of the crime is not disclosed and the identity of the accused remains a secret. Questioner? It would be you. Or at the very least, you’re a silhouette with light technological magic that adds another person’s deep voice over your darkened outlines. Anyway, choose your Zoom background carefully.
A digital experience managed at the pinnacle of “vs.” Mallory Catlett and produced by Mabu Mines, a court clerk assembles its participants into an online room. A man (David Thomson) is called as a witness. Witness what? The interrogator – the role, seemingly randomly divided among the audience – asks only two questions: whether the witness wants a drink and whether the witness was born in November. The witness answers each with contempt, questioning the values and taste of the court. Part of his response to the question of his birth date is as follows: “No, if we are to think of opposition to the hegemonic ideals and phallocentrism contained in patriarchal culture that defies such discourse, combines theory and fantasy, within the framework of a law-inflated constitution.” Shame on the stenographer.
After this first sequence, the interrogation is repeated three times, with different audience members and other actors – Becca Blackwell, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and Perry Yung – playing witnesses as interrogators. The dialogue remains mostly the same except for a few variations, as if these are four musicians, each performing a solo to the same melody. Details are never more precise.
A cryptic case pursuing an anonymous crime will surely bring to mind the works of Franz Kafka. Although “vs”. He is an inverted Kafka in which witnesses belittle the court’s authority. “This is your court,” each says. “Do as you please. I’m not in it. I never will.” The court seems confused. Me too, if I’m honest.
rux, a breathtakingly creative multimedia artist made an exciting debut nearly 20 years ago with “talk” An impressionistic puzzle box of a game about art, race, memory and power. He took a panel discussion as a form of “talk,” embodying his rituals and deconstructing it. So there was reason to hope for “Vs”. would bring the same knack into a Zoom courtroom. But the show intertwines with the medium from just one perspective, mostly through the speaker view and the manipulation of the camera feed. He did not fully assess what kinds of narratives, images, and conversations lived in this space. Such a dense text, in which actors look up from their chests, their faces and bodies overflowing with visual effects, suffer without the entanglement of actors and audience, both in the same venue. Through an online platform, my ability to absorb and parse language seemed to falter with each iteration. The engagement was virtual, not real.
I am not proud of this carelessness. It can represent an ugly privilege. Because if your life, body, or lived experience were really at stake, you wouldn’t have the luxury of distraction. But the “Vs” abstraction. has a deterrent effect. In that Zoom window, my face was blank, I didn’t feel responsible or responsible, just that I didn’t feel any moving (a definite wiggling wiggling wiggling wiggling wiggling fidgeting I was worried about whether it would spoil the illusion of fidgeting.
Even if live performances return, I can’t wait for theater artists to experiment with digital tools and explore new possibilities and new forms of transmedia. Still, “Vs.” it feels like a misstrial.
until August 8; maboumines.org. Working time: 55 minutes.