If you’d told me a few months ago that one of the biggest hits of the experimental theatre season would be based on a Japanese video game, I would have been a little bit dubious. How suddenly things change. I don’t even play Dance Dance Revolution, and certainly didn’t sit around daydreaming about seeing it dramatized. But when I heard that Les Freres Corbusier, which became one of my favorite theatre companies after I saw their shows Hell House, Heddatron, and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, was putting on a musical based on DDR (warning: embedded music) I knew instantly that I would want to see it . Consequently, my friends and I were at the second performance of a now-sold-out twelve-show run.
And the show is certainly…a marvel. It’s even got a plot: It’s the year 2068 and a totalitarian government has outlawed all dancing. An alien named Moonbeam Funk (Vayu O’Donnell), the spawn of dancing crystals, comes to earth and demonstrates moves so fine that he’s recruited to lead a resistance movement that's trying to legalize its favorite mode of expression. Moonbeam is initially excellent at galvanizing these secret dancers via electronic mashups of Disney songs and choreography that looks suspiciously like it comes straight from the DDR cues for those songs. The revolutionaries show their support by courageously dancing along to his teachings. But when the dancers actually face off with the authorities, they discover that their lithe dancer bodies are not necessarily a match for police batons. To take my description any further than that would risk spoilers. But suffice it to say: There is a dance-off, of epic proportions.
If you knew nothing about DDR save for what I wrote in the past two paragraphs, you’d probably expect it to be pretty weird. So it is no small feat that the show’s execution is at least twice as weird as you're probably imagining, a core virtue in my book. And to give credit where credit is due, nearly every physical property of the show is perfect. When a show’s press release goes out of its way to promise “50 really attractive, barely-clothed young actors and buckets of free beer!” it had better deliver on those promises in spades, and can I assure you that it does.The set transforms the entire physical configuration of the warehouse-like Ohio Theatre, covers it with plastic wrap and futuristic trash, and sets it a-vibrating with an onslaught of low bass tones—as a friend accompanying me remarked, “I feel exactly like I’m in a garbage space scow that’s about to take off.” The costumes (all sixty-something of them) are the platonic ideal of that absurd 80s-retrofuture American-Apparel-deconstructed aesthetic. The caliber of acting was somewhat varied, though buoyed up by skilled or charming (sometimes even both) performances from most of the leads. There were also some really phenomenal unicorns.
So what’s not to love? And yet, somehow…I didn’t. Which doesn’t mean that you won’t. For as much as I was disappointed with the show, my reasons for feeling that way are kinda idiosyncratic.
Why, then, am I such a killjoy?
Reason #1: I hate fun. Or, at least, that’s the way I’ve started jokingly referring to my plight, wherein I’ve become fairly dismal at liking things despite their other virtues if I can’t convince myself they’re good or enlightening or edifying in some way. By clear design, DDR is almost entirely free of substance—or, at least, if I was supposed to take any serious point away from the show I’m not entirely sure what it was (totalitarian governments are meanies, but they will eventually give you what you want? Um, doubt it…). To be fair, Les Freres has, in a sense, discredited my concerns by advertising the show as “deeply regrettable sophomoric comedy.” But nor is it the first time the company has done something that was silly on the surface but somehow achieved a deep resonance, in the classic mode of sugar-coating something disturbing to make it even more disturbing. Indeed, the scenes showcasing Jaquise’s (Ian Untermann’s) burning political rage, while as tongue-in-cheek as everything else in the show, were probably the most charming and potent scenes in it, since earnestness, even when it’s about absurdities, is considerably more visceral then forced ironic shallowness. But DDR was about 90% composed of the latter. For me, this had the deadening effect of gradually turning my pleasure to ennui as I searched for a deeper purpose in what I was watching and never quite found it.
Reason #2: Posture Posture Revolution. For the past few years I’ve begun to wonder if the relentless pursuit of irony has gone too far: if the urge to create something original is too often supplanted by aggressive reclamations of the cultural sins of our past, as if retreading source material that was tacky to begin with automatically intellectualizes it and gives it more weight and worth. These days, creators are constantly being given credit for resurrecting parts of our culture that seem designed to make one wonder what the heck society was thinking in the first place. As a fan of metafiction, parody, and camp, I think that’s a shame. I’m hopeful about any show branded with these labels, so it’s newly frustrating every time someone substitutes frantic winking for a real message. But it doesn’t always have to be that way: ever since I saw it in Toronto, I’ve touted We Will Rock You (the Queen musical) as the Best Bad Musical I’ve Ever Seen. It is dear to my heart in part because it seems to be completely earnest about its creative purity, and yet, nearly every choice made for the production grades as either subtly or gloriously wrong. It’s impossible not to compare Dance Dance Revolution to We Will Rock You because they have almost exactly the same plot,1 so I've spent awhile trying to puzzle out what separates the campy things I love—both the “good” (like the best of neo-burlesque) and the “bad” (We Will Rock You)—from what feel like poor imitations—like DDR, What’s That Smell?, and last fall’s bizarrely critically acclaimed production of Xanadu. I came up with a few theories, but when I really started looking into the issue I was not surprised to find that Susan Sontag had prefigured my intuition by forty years in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”—specifically her notion that “Pure Camp is always naive.”2 There’s hardly a whiff of naïveté in DDR, Xanadu, et al. This is their prerogative. The unfortunate side effect is that they leave out the sincerity as well.
Reason #3: “Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” I consider myself a fan of Les Freres, so of course I’m more dismayed with this show than I would be with a subpar encounter with a random unfamiliar group. Les Freres’ visionary artistic director Alex Timbers remarked to the Voice, “When you have 53 people dancing in unison, it’s a thin line between being horrible and overwhelming, and being visceral and electric and exciting and joyful. And it has to be the second.” I fear that even extreme amounts of flashiness when there isn’t much there aside from it, runs the risk of being neither horrible nor electric but—dare I say it—a little bit boring. This is in large part because I’ve experienced firsthand how much Les Freres can sparkle in their other shows. But I fear that the magic stayed home this time around. Consequently, my initial reaction of “Oh, I guess that was fine” has gradually transmuted to an earnest pining for their prior glories.
Admittedly, the reasons that I’m not falling over for this show are highly personal. Indeed, I wouldn’t fault someone if the things that disappointed me were enticements for them—I mean, it’s not as if I prefer hating fun. Neither are my sentiments particularly useful in telling Joe Average Science Fiction Fan (assuming some alternate universe where Joe Average can actually score tickets) whether he wants to see this show. So here’s an alternate take: if you think that a science-fiction plot, colorful futuristic costumes, wacky electronic music, gay romance, and cheap tickets will make your day, then by all means try to get on the wait list. Me, I’ll be waiting around for Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson to make me a believer again.
1. I can’t fault either show for this since (a) it’s not that original, and (b) I suspect I’m a large percentage of the extremely thin slice of the population that has seen both.
2. A notion that’s gloriously expounded upon in points 18 through 21 of the aforementioned essay.