Ruby

Created by Anne Waldman

"Make a bodhisattva vow: Harm no sentient being!"

The 2009 off-off Broadway play, Red Noir, written by poet Anne Waldman and staged by legendary actress, writer, and director Judith Malina at the ripe old age of 83, revolved around the exploits of hot shot NTC pseudo-private eye/femme fatale RUBY.

Or something. More than one critic deemed it "tough to follow."

It was presented at The Living Theatre, a radical political theatre troupe that rose to prominence in New York City and Paris during the 1950s and 60s, and which was co-founded by Malina.

The almost single-entendre title should be a clue. Billed as "a Buddhist Anarchist detective thriller, set in the shadows of the Lower East Side," this experimental piece of communal theatre was allegedly derived from "the metaphors of film noir and gangster movies." The promos promised, among other things, "a black market deal," "a glamorous detective," "a valise containing danger," "a rogue lab technician" and "a chorus of anarchists" hoping to bring "sanity and peace to a world of strife and struggle."

Uh huh.

What it apparently was mostly about, though, was "visionary theatre that lets the audience and players collaborate to defeat evil."

In other words, you either "got" it or you didn't. A lot of people didn't.

It kicked off with Ruby (played by actress and the show's musical director Sheila Dabney) in a glamorous red dress being handed a wooden gun, which she waves around as she speaks into the phone. She's charged with tracking down a corporate flunky who's skipped, taking a suitcase with him that contains something very, very valuable, but ends up chasing down not one, but two men, each carrying a valise. The first suitcase contains something not only valuable, but also very dangerous, possiby a nuclear or toxic substance (shades of Kiss Me Deadly!); the other contains "the seeds of the future."

But wait! Just in case you thought the metaphors and symbolism were being laid on a little thick, there's more. Much more.. As Alexis Soloski in The Village Voice put it:

There are words to describe...Red Noir. Alas, most of them are unprintable. For the first half of the piece, Waldman and director Judith Malina offer a fairly straightforward, if not particularly theatrical, meditation on community and threat. As the principal characters speak, an ensemble of 20 underclad actors saunters along the stage's perimeter. Occasionally, they pause and shout, in unison, "Anarchy! Sweet anarchy!"

Then Waldman and Malina grow bored with the script. An hour into the show... they instruct the chorus to remove all of the audience members' chairs. Then each actor takes a few spectators by hand and drags them up on the perimeter platform, in a lame embodiment of the collectivist theme. Save for those with exhibitionist tendencies or starry-eyed notions about theater as a communal event, the next 30 minutes are uniquely torturous. I was patted, poked, danced about, and forced to mime... The whole exercise exudes the stale scent of the late '60s, the Living Theatre's heyday, as well as the odor of various unwashed thespians. By the time the play devolved into hugs and scattered applause, I felt positively unclean. Never has a theatrical event made me so long to run home and scald myself in the shower.

Not to be outdone, Helen Shaw of Time Out weighed in:

In a way, Red Noir has no business being reviewed. Is it terrible? Yes. A fire hazard? Indubitably. But the show excepts itself from such bourgeois definitions as "good" and "bad" by quite literally throwing its arms around its audience. At first, watching Anne Waldman's verse drama -- a deconstructed thriller filtered through proanarchist, antimeat lyrics -- we assume that the show is merely accidentally self-destructive. But stay long enough for the public-hugging portion, and you'll see the antitheatrical gestures reflect its larger mission, one that has little to do with normal notions of quality...

The group's constant pitter-patter drowns out Waldman's noir -- a shame, since despite the work's frequent unsubtlety... it has rhythm and zing. But whenever we get drawn into its machinations -- a femme fatale (Sheila Dabney) tries to make one last score, an ecowarrior hides a mysterious suitcase -- director Judith Malina comes up with another way to overwhelm it with noise, dreadful video or wavy-armed dancing. Finally, all pretense at serving the play is abandoned, and the cast rousts us from our chairs for an excruciating round of contact improv.

Theater lovers who feel grumpy that they missed the heyday of '60s participant theater: This event is not for you. Your faux nostalgia will be depressed beyond recovery by its subamateur nonsense; your respect for Malina (a titan of the avant-garde) may be irremediably damaged. But then, the show can hardly be concerned with an aesthete's shocked recoil. The Living Theatre's stated task is to end violence through communally lifted voices; how can a star rating encapsulate that?

Even Andy Webster in The New York Times got in his licks:

Red Noir is described in its press materials as a "detective thriller based on film noir techniques and themes," but it ultimately conjures something closer to a tribal 1960s be-in, without the drugs or the nudity...

...the show is less intent on narrative than inducing a communal rapture... The unmiked actors, the Living Theater's subpar acoustics and the circular stage do not help clarify the dialogue...

Ms. Waldman's language -- toying with hard-boiled banter but mostly flowing in torrents of didactic near-verse -- offers pleas for understanding in the Middle East and tirades against meat and airborne contaminants. At one point a film (assembled by Eric Olson) interrupts the onstage activity to present images of war, nuclear blasts and other scenes...

Red Noir premiered in December 2009, and was originally scheduled to conclude January. 31, but extended its run for another month. Judging from the reviews, I'm not sure why.

THE EVIDENCE

  • "Anarchy! Anarchy! Sweet anarchy!"

PLAYS

  • RED NOIR...Watch a scene
    (2009, The Living Theatre, New York City)
    Original Run: December 7, 2009-February 27, 2010
    Original venue: The Living Theatre, New York City
    Written by Anne Waldman
    Directed by Judith Malina
    Musical director: Sheila Dabney
    Set design: Judith Malina
    Starring
    Sheila Dabney as RUBY
    Also starring Camilla de Araujo, Brent Barker, Vinie Burrows, Maylin Castro, Ben Cerf, Sheila Dabney, Jay Dobkin, Luis Christian Dilorenzi, Erin Downhour, Eno Edet, Tjasa Ferme, Ondina Frate, Gemma Forbes, Maria Guzman, Home Hynes, Silas Inches Albert Lamont, Jenna Kirk, Celeste Moratti, Martin Munoz, Lucie Pohl, Marie Pohl, Erik Rodriguez, Judi Rymer, Anthony Sisco, Lori Summers, Enoch Wu, Kennedy Yanko.

BOOKS

"...a compilation of selected pieces intended for performance in the theatrical sense."

RELATED LINKS

Plays, Operas, Musicals and Other Theatrical Diversions featuring Private Eyes

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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