The Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes
What is our relationship with time and aging, and how do both of those occurrences affect how we see ourselves? What is the relationship between the performer and the viewer, and what happens when both those roles exist in one person? These are two of the questions that Gob Squad explores in their new show, Before Your Very Eyes, at The Public Theater. Gob Squad, a European experimental artists collective, has used several of their past shows to explore the nature of performance and the role of the audience. In Before Your Very Eyes, however, the audience is transformed into a scientific observation team as they witness, “seven lives lived in fast forward.”
Featuring seven children between the ages of 8 and 14, this is the first show Gob Squad has created that doesn’t feature any of the group’s members. Instead, the adults work behind the scenes and the children take the stage as themselves living their lives in fast-forward inside a “safe-room” of one-way mirrors. The audience observes these “real children” (as proudly announced at the beginning of the show) as if they were specimens being studied in a lab. A British woman’s voice—sounding a bit like Siri—gives instructions to the children via microphone while the words are simultaneously displayed on a screen above the safe-room. The voice instructs the children to “grow up.” And, after a little exploration to set the tone, they do. First stop: angsty teen. All the transitions between ages are done with humor. Nothing is hidden and there is never any pretense that the performers are not children.
Set up in the upstage left corner is a video camera. The live feed from the camera is projected onto a screen stage right of the safe-room. A second screen on the other side of the safe-room shows, in turn, each performer at his or her original age. Through this, the teenagers are able to have a conversation with their past selves. They address the past them as if they were a completely different person even though they recognize themselves. Gob Squad has used the conversation to illustrate how time has separated a single person into two separate beings. Instead of only being performers, the children now take on, in part, the role of the audience member as they view their past selves. Once again the voice instructs the performers to grow up. They do, using new costumes to transform from teenagers to people in their mid-forties. The video camera is again used for a conversation across the barrier of time, showing that the gap between the past self and the present self has grown even wider.
Skipping over the intervening years, the voice announces that it is time to die. The performers react with excitement, again reminding the audience that they are watching a show. The death scene uses music and choreography. The choreography is simple but very effective. The performers run in place while moving their arms in a repeated pattern, part of which is thumping their chest like a heartbeat. The play ends when all have fallen to the ground, dead.
The entire performance has a highly theatrical feeling. The audience is never allowed to forget that they are watching a performance and it doesn’t seem like the children ever forget that they are performing. Occasionally they cup their hands around their eyes and press their faces to the one-way mirror, looking out at the audience. This reverses the performer-viewer roles, making me feel uncomfortable, as though I were the one on display. The show continues to blur the lines between viewer and performer when, at one point, one of the boys exits the safe-room and reappears on stage outside of the box. He is then able to watch the others inside, becoming an observer himself. A girl comes to the front, trying to see him through the mirror, and the video camera comes on. Via the camera’s feed projected onto the screen, the audience is able to see itself dimly through the mirror, becoming both the observer and the performer.
The set is proscenium-style with almost the entire stage taken up by the safe-room and the two adjoining screens. The confining nature of the safe-room combined with the one-way mirror that created an obvious visual and physical barrier between the performers and the audience felt very alienating. The audience was constantly being reminded of the nature of the show and the distance between where they sat and where the performance was occurring. This rule of distance that had been created was particularly effective when it was broken, as it was when the boy, Keanu, exited the safe-room and re-emerged on the stage.
For the majority of the show, lighting was minimalist and untheatrical. This reinforced the idea that the children were inside a laboratory in some institutional building. However, there were several points in which tableaus were created on stage. The lighting for those was similarly abrupt and dramatic, wrenching the audience out of a passive state and forcing them to remember that they were watching a play. The sound design for this show was excellent and fit it perfectly. Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen was played near the beginning of the show to introduce the performers, and again at the end. This set the tone for the entire show, keeping the mood light while still allowing the play to address complex and delicate subject matter.
The direction felt light but strong, ensuring that the show continued to drive towards its end goal, maintaining its focus and energy, while allowing the children to sound and act like themselves the majority of the time, keeping their presence from feeling forced. The actors themselves were excellent, always present and connecting strongly with the audience. When the children aged there was a level of play-acting, but this was never overdone either and held strong moments of truth for each character.
Overall, Gob Squad was spot-on with Before Your Very Eyes. The show is compact and packed with energy, never allowing anything to settle for too long or the mood to become too heavy. As in past works, Gob Squad continues to explore the relationship between performer and audience, adding in the factor of time. Through reflection on one’s past, performer and view can become the same. Yet is that past self really the same person as the present self? Time divides and you can only go forward, never back.