‘The Mood Room’ Review: 1980s Anomie, California Style

In Annie-B Parson’s “The Mood Room,” the first thing we learn about the five sisters reunited in their childhood home is that their parents died a year ago. One of the sisters tells us this. They all talk a lot, though very little, about grief.

Something is clearly wrong. The sisters are anxious and depressed. They cannot always distinguish one another; their identities are not fixed. One sister became allergic to the sun. The water is not clean. They have many ideas on how to solve problems: doctors and diets, new lighting and other purchases and scene changes, vacations to exotic places or simply retreating to the headboard’s room.

Even without the program notes, you can guess that we are in the early 1980s, in the unfinished 1980s, from the sisters’ conversations and the interior decor. Big Dance Theater’s production debuted at BAM Fisher on Tuesday, with text from Conceptual’s 1982 “Five Sisters”. Guy de Cointet. Born and raised in France, he lived in Los Angeles and captured the immersion of some of the city’s residents with a mix of fun and alarm.

In a program note, Parson calls de Cointet an “artistic soul mate,” and it’s remarkable to see how much his text demands his customary approach. Strolling through an elegant interior adorned with tufted curtains and beige rugs (praise to designer Lauren Machen), the sisters draw from commercials, soap operas and Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” emphasizing the artificiality of their speech, all being treated equally. They often pause and pose before underlining a word.

This pause and pose is pure Parson. The sisters dance a lot here, sometimes in the girl group formation, they touch it step by step like a disco ball. But every second of the show was tightly choreographed, tightly controlled, down to how they held their water glasses to how they swung their feet. Anxious mood arises from this exertion of control, especially as sisters react to and interpret changes in light and sound.

Adding music by experimental laptop artist Holly Herndon It is an inspiring choice. It echoes Laurie Anderson, with no sampling or recognizable citation, like a stitched-up memory reel of the era, filled with classic sounds. The sisters continue to characterize it differently (“what strange music”, “what thoughtful music”) and yet correctly.

The cast are experts, too: Kate Moran as the sun-allergic sister, Elizabeth DeMent as the sleepy-eyed workaholic, Myssi Robinson as the clean-line dancer with hearing and hip problems, and Michelle Sui as the painter. Appearing briefly without the other sisters, Theda Hammel offers a welcome, looser humor—the most Chekhov and contemporary, rearranging her household items before having dinner about a man she met and saying, “That’s how I remember it.”

This one gets a laugh, but otherwise the humor spreads thinly. An hour later, the sisters pile up and eventually one of them leaves, but no one really changes. That’s the point, it’s a static spot, perhaps better suited to museums and art galleries than a theatre. The program memo speaks of the “lasting damage of the Reagan era” and that consumerism has exhausted civic participation, but the production doesn’t carry that much political weight. Yes, people like these brothers exist in Los Angeles and in all of us. The question is: Are you in the mood to spend time with them?

Mood Room

Sunday at BAM Fisher in Brooklyn; bam.org

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