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Review: Protec/Attac and the Deadly Consequences of Theater Etiquette

Peter Mills Weiss and Julia Mounsey return to make us question our obligations in the theater.

Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss wrote and star in Protec/Attac, which performed as part of the 2023 Under the Radar Festival at Chelsea Factory.
(© Walter Wlodarczyk)

Do you ever want to give up — shrug your shoulders, drop out of the rat race, and spend your remaining days in peaceful solitude? This is a fantasy surely entertained by every member of the striving class, and it's the paradise evangelized (however insincerely) in Protec/Attac, which recently completed a four-day run at Chelsea Factory under the banner of the Under the Radar Festival.

The provocative 50-minute piece was created by Peter Mills Weiss and Julia Mounsey, the duo behind last season's while you were partying. Viewers of that nasty little incel fantasia will recognize the house style employed here: Weiss and Mounsey enter the stage and sit behind large microphones placed on a plastic folding table (Kate McGee is responsible for the austere design). Sour-faced and black-clad, Mounsey instantly appears bored by her own play. Weiss is somewhat jollier (he actually cracks a smile or two), but both speak in the soothing, emotionless cadence of public radio as Weiss interviews Mounsey for this podcast from hell.

Julia (both performers use their real names) reveals herself to be an urban anchorite. She hasn't left her apartment in 18 months, surviving on unemployment. All of her food is delivered, which isn't much: She subsists on bread, cheese, and instant coffee. She insists that she is not depressed, reframing her misery as a "state of grace." Moreover, she hopes that others will follow her example, leading to the end of humanity. And really, is such antihumanism that far from the Malthusian fringe of the environmental movement?

Mounsey and Weiss chase this interview with a series of games in which the audience is asked to point at and follow a red or blue ball on the mounted screens upstage (appropriately clinical video design by Matt Romein). We are also asked to gasp at the sight of a red apple and respond "Yes" or "No" depending on which direction Mounsey points. The whole exercise straddles the line between doctor's office physical and hypnotism.

Julia Mounsey plays Julia in Protec/Attac, which performed as part of the 2023 Under the Radar Festival at Chelsea Factory.
(© Walter Wlodarczyk)

The pair are obviously interested in the power a performer has over the audience. The convention of obedience (take your seat, shut your mouth, wear your mask) is well-established in the theater, a code of manners designed to ensure that we all enjoy the show. This being a good festival-attending audience, viewers were naturally eager to comply — even when Julia instructed us to affirm statements with which we might not agree.

Dionysus was on their side Thursday night (the evening I attended): Right as Julia uttered the phrase "state of grace," a thunderclap could be heard over the theater, as if she were an Old Testament prophet. Soon after, a heavy rain fell on the roof of Chelsea Factory as she attempted to spread her nihilist gospel. It was one of those happy twists of fate that both performer and audience will remember for a long time.

But even without meteorological intervention, Protec/Attac lingers in the memory for the disturbing questions it raises. It presents the trauma of secular atomization (felt so acutely during the pandemic) as the genesis of a religious cult. It forces us to consider the dark implications of what might hitherto be dismissed as "good manners," the impulse to be compliant lest others suspect we're one of those people. How many terrible ideas go unchallenged for this simple reason? How much power do we sacrifice every day to the god of politeness? In its own sly way, Protec/Attac is a call to get rude and take back your life.

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