Jet Lag

“It was like ambient music,” my theatre companion said, his guitar slung over his shoulder, as we wandered along 10th Avenue. “There was no latch, it never hooked you, you know. It just swept you along…..oh look, La Luncheonette…” and he wandered off to peer at the menu. Meanwhile, I couldn’t shake the sound of the sea that rung in my ears and the smell of the airport that clung to my hair. I felt as if I needed to go home and unpack. I hadn’t been anywhere, though, just to the theatre; it must’ve been
Jet Lag

Rather, I should say I was entranced by Jet Lag, an impressive multimedia presentation that seamlessly combines video, computer animation, and live performance at The Kitchen, running through January 15. Created by The Builders Association and Diller + Scofidio, Jet Lag is an exploration of that strange moment in history when communication and travel technology were developed just enough so as to prevent the very things they were created to service from happening: namely, communicating and getting somewhere. Be forewarned though, for even though the ambiance created by Jet Lag clings to your brain like a wonderful blue haze, the show is often more art installation than theater. And while the events on which Jet Lag is based are incredible true stories, they are presented with a cold, flat detachment, almost from the perspective of the technology in question.

The stage is deceptively bare at the opening of the play — that is, of course, until the 4’x5′ onstage screen starts rocking rhythmically back and forth, much like a sailboat at sea, with an actor sitting “on deck” in front of it, clicking on a camera which will document a record-breaking journey around the world. Instantly, a live-feed pops up on another screen covering the back wall of the theater, where we see a man who is obviously at sea. It’s a bit like watching a documentary as well as watching the making of the documentary — yet this isn’t actually a documentary but a fiction, carefully staged and manipulated. Thus, the metaphor for the story of Roger Dearborn, the subject of Part I.

Amid much media fanfare, Dearborn set out in 1969 to break the world record for sailing around the world. He never made it past the first leg of the race, but instead of facing his failure under the scrutiny of the world media, he chose instead to send back reports of his success. Without the satellite-tracking abilities of today, no one could verify his whereabouts, and so his story was believed.

Despite the fact that I was mesmerized by the lulling rhythm of the sea and the flawless video and sound design, I did miss the intense human emotion that existed behind this real-life event. Indeed, Dearborn almost never loses his cool, even when his sense of personal failure clearly deepens with every falsified report sent forth. His abandoned wife never changes her dour, pathetic expression either, and Dearborn’s woebegone press representative never reveals the great betrayal and embarrassment he must have felt by having been duped by his star sailor.

I suspect The Builders Association had made the performances so lacking in emotion in order to point out that technology possesses the power to alienate us, not only from each other, but from our own selves as well. Basically, no one communicates anything to anyone in this piece except lies, a process encouraged by the presence of the eye of the world that is watching.

The impressive use of sound and video continues into Part II, with the rumbling of subwoofers simulating the takeoff of a jet, as we enter the world of Doris Schwartz, a woman in the process of taking her grandson on 167 consecutive flights in order to elude his father and his psychiatrist. Again, even as I marveled at the cool computer animation that make the actors appear to be gliding along one of those horizontal airport escalators, I kept wondering when I was going to see the emotional cost these endless flights would have on such tireless travelers. In a change of pace, the performance of Dominique Dibbell as the teenage boy is so convincing it’s a shock to realize she is the same woman who plays the marmish dispatcher in Part I. Still, the relationship one would expect to see between a young boy and his grandmother, particularly as they spend every hour of their day together either in airplanes or airports, never materializes.

As we filed out of the theatre, “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith looped again and again, repeating in a mesmerizing chant, “sweeeee-eet emoooootion.” I thought, “yes, when one is immersed in technology one begins to miss sweet emotion.” Perhaps that is the point.