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Before Your Very Eyes

Seven kid actors tell the story of the rest of your life.

Keanu Jacobs, Miles Sherr-Garcia, Rose Bell-McKinley, Meghan Chang, Charlotte Beede, Elijah Pluchino, and Simone Mindolovich star in Gob Squad's Before Your Very Eyes at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

"We've been thinking a lot about death lately," a deadpan Miles Sherr-Garcia says into a microphone as he peers out at the audience. He can't be older than 13. We're not used to stage children speaking so frankly about adult subjects like death, sex, and money. That's exactly what we get, however, in Before Your Very Eyes, now making its U.S. debut at the Public Theater. Two alternating casts of local kids (delicately labeled "Team 1" and "Team A") present the show, developed over the last two years by the actors and Berlin-based experimental theater company Gob Squad. The Team 1 performance I attended was revealing and bittersweet, even if its execution left room for improvement.

The Gob Squad has been noted for its bold and unexpected use of video onstage. The company's ambitious and irreverent Western Society (seen earlier this year at NYU's Skirball Center) featured a live re-creation of a little-seen YouTube home video in an attempt to chart all of human history. Before Your Very Eyes uses prerecorded and live video to present the story of growing up, at least through a child's eyes. This turns out to be a surprisingly astute prism for viewing our lives, one that will certainly lead many in the audience to reevaluate their priorities.

The cast appears inside a small red-carpeted room protected behind a one-way mirror. The area is littered with games and toys, its constrictive proscenium limiting the playing space into a museum diorama. Scrolling text above this display case describes it as "a rare and magnificent opportunity to witness seven lives lived in fast forward before your very eyes!" That we do, in an uncomfortably honest way. Those with a romantic notion about the innocence of childhood (that is, people who don't regularly interact with actual children) are likely to be scandalized.

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The kids distill the seven ages of man into a far more efficient (if reductive) four: They dance wildly to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" at their present age. They flash forward to their early 20s, a time in which the Goth looks seems to have made a major comeback: The girls wear black lipstick and the boys don heavy leather coats. The effortlessly adorable Keanu Jacobs sits at a card table and chops up fake cocaine with a credit card while the hyperactive Elijah Pluchino humps a pillow. Their next stop is mid-life, which they depict as an endless and depressing dinner party in which lonely singles resent the unhappily married. This is the penultimate stop before death.

A big brother-esque voice (Rigley Riley, with the kind of posh British diction that would feel appropriate in a telecom advertisement) orders the children to do things during these scenes. "Now start eating your bad sushi," she commands the hilarious Simone Mindolovich during the mid-life soirée. She reluctantly obliges. Throughout, the kids interact with old video recording of themselves, messages from the past that seem increasingly smug as reality sets in. Young Elijah asks his now-obese older self, "Did you follow any of your dreams?" These moments would be a lot funnier and even more poignant if the stage action were better synchronized with Shawn Duan's video design. Too often there are long and awkward pauses. Still, the actors roll with the punches and make the show work.

Before Your Very Eyes is basically 70 minutes of watching kids play dress-up, but not the cutesy version that most adults would like to imagine. The Gob Squad's take on make-believe feels a lot more truthful. In fact, it's downright disarming in its honesty. "I can spend too much money joining a gym, to try to lose weight," Jacobs responds when the voice asks him what he can do at age 45. While the show ostensibly depicts the very specific lifecycle of the upper middle-class Americans, it actually reveals how observant kids are of adult behavior. It may feel like we're watching them onstage, but they're actually watching us.

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