“The future belongs to crowds,” wrote Don DeLillo in 1989’s “Mao II,” a novel that fixates on images of throngs of people and begins with a cultic marriage ceremony in Yankee Stadium.
“Mass/Rabble,” two consciously crude references to the loss of self within a crowd, is the title of a new interactive dance piece by Submersive Productions being staged at the War Memorial, a space for masses if there ever was one.
It’s a deeply depersonalizing experience, one that simulates the many ways individuals attempt to escape the self and find meaning in collective action and identity: protest marches, religious rituals and war, amongst others.
No talking, you’re told from the outset as you’re “processed,”–a word choice that feels precise–led upstairs, and seated in long rows that are patrolled by a solemn minder.
The rules are unclear. Who’s an actor and who’s not? Paranoia sets in as you wait for something to happen. Even a roaming photographer begins to seem sinister. Is she really snapping pictures of the show? Or us? Is it part of the illusion? The effect feels punitive and vaguely carceral.
It’s dimly lit inside the cavernous marble halls of the War Memorial, save for a spotlight in the center of the floor. Throughout the show the performers will act as varied distinct crowds: making noises as a chorus, charging forward as an army, mimicking as a cult, stepping forward as prisoners. (Friends who do improv tell me this is similar to what’s called an “organic”: an exercise where you devotedly mimic your fellow performers.)
Parsing a narrative takes mental work, and at times one wishes “Mass/Rabble” was clearer about its goals. The promotional copy invokes “borders” and “migration,” though nothing in the piece ties these abstract themes to a specific political context (an important disclaimer: I attended a preview).
At first, the “processing” would suggest that we too are rabble: We are initially made to wait in silence, then beckoned forward–our movement is policed. Yet this experience falls apart as the performers emerge and the audience is invited to engage at our leisure.
And what is meant by “rabble”? It’s a provocative word choice. It implies disgust for a large group of people. It’s easily racialized. Yet the rabble conforms to no specific role that would make this line of critique legible.
It’s also unclear whom we as the audience are meant to represent as the “mass.” Are we meant to feel as the rabble does: vulnerable, stateless, in flux?
Alternatively, are we, as an audience, as Americans, as visitors to an imperial hall, meant to feel secure in our position, free to sit back or jump in, observing the rabble at a comfortable distance? We are addressed as “citizens” when given instructions, a clear mark of distinction from the rabble.
Perhaps, likely, it’s all of the above. These contradictions, permeable boundaries and unclear roles are the point–but the experience feels half-formed.
My friend speculated that it could be an allegory for the USSR–or any collectivist authoritarian political project, really–a point driven home by a later scene that involves a balcony, a white dress and stirring opera. For a minute the mass is united in our attention and admiration for a sole figure of beauty. After so much chaos, you feel lulled, complacent, infantilized. It’s the submissive joy of taking passive part in something great and beautiful that annihilates your individuality.
On its own, Submersive’s production is a fresh formal experiment in a performance that demolishes boundaries between stage and audience. We see the escalation of one idea into a dominant theme. Even an act as simple as spontaneous laughter, when copied, is disconcerting, a reminder that any massive gathering of people doing any coordinated act, no matter how basic, can be uncanny. As a meditation on migration, however, “Mass/Rabble” is too unfocused to succeed as any type of commentary.
Ten years ago this type of performance might have been branded as a “flash mob,” that suburban concern of bloggers and TV news that transformed into a hip marketing tool for events. At my suburban high school, my English teacher used to constantly bring up how he wanted to organize a Mao Zedong flash mob at the local supermarket shopping center, presumably more to startle unwitting soccer moms than galvanize local Marxist-Leninists (was he huffing DeLillo’s prose too?). Fast forward to now and such an experiment demands to be politicized, mapped onto our global anxieties and post-2016 grasping to understand “what’s happening.”
One of the rabble lunges towards me, dragging a second body on his back. The others lurch forward too, their movements jerky and zombified. Some collapse to the floor and crawl. For a moment I consider not moving, letting the rabble hordes close in. But at the last second, I calmly step aside.
One thing is clear. We are already living in DeLillo’s future.
Submersive Productions’ “Mass/Rabble” will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at the War Memorial at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. through April 14.