The set up:
It’s 4 pm on an overcast but warm Tuesday afternoon. I’m standing in East Houston’s Evergreen Cemetery, a place full of crypts laden with pinwheels, neon hued silk flowers, stuffed animals and all sorts of other personal tchotchkes/memory paraphernalia. It’s the most wondrously distinctive cemetery I’ve ever seen, full of vibrant color and beautiful visual tributes to those that rest here.
I’d love to spend an hour of two just looking around and trying to figure out what each shrine-like grave denotes about its resident and the family/friends left behind. But alas, I’m here on business. Theater critic business that is. And I’m joined by about 40 or so other arts enthusiasts for what’s promised to be a two-hour city-wide tour that blends immersive theater with site specific, actorless performance in a live pedestrian based show.
Sound confusing? Let me break it down for you. This is Remote Houston. We show up. We put on headphones. We as a group are guided around the city by the narrative voice in our ears that hopefully brings some insight/emotion/satisfying raison d'être to the whole thing.
The show is the brainchild of Rimini Protokoll, a Berlin based artists' collective who has been producing similar city-wide shows in Europe. Each show is specifically tailored to a city’s unusual spaces with great detail paid on how best to move groups from one site to another. Recently Rimini has taken its show farther afield, with Houston being their fourth stop in the United States, thanks to programming by this year's CounterCurrent16 festival, presented by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. In fact, Rimini’s offerings are so en vogue that none other than Houston’s theatrical grande dame , the Alley Theatre, is co-producing the show and will continue offering the guided audio tours for ten performances after the festival closes.
This type of theater offering is fairly commonplace now in artistic hotbeds such as New York, London and Toronto and each have had their share of genius works, major successes and less than fabulous flops. But for Houston, this get your butts out of your regular theater seat and open yourself up to a totally different kind of moving around performative happening is still fairly rare.
As someone who loves the genre, I couldn’t help but cross my fingers as I signed my many pre-show liability waivers assuring the organizers that I wouldn’t sue if I tripped and fell along the way (ah, America, you slay me with your fear of litigation) that this might be the gateway performance ushering into Houston more of this kind of alternative theater.
As mentioned, the cemetery is our launching point in this show, and it’s a terrifically efficient way to start. We’re met by team of assistants to help us hand in our paper work, get our headphones set up and give us general info about the show such as no bathroom breaks and the advice to stay close to the group for better sound reception.
Once we’re assembled and everyone is appropriately checked in and outfitted, the generic music and ‘please hold’ messages in our ears turns to the voice of Heather, our guide for most of the two-hour experience. Sounding like a cross between Siri and our oddly cadenced GPS systems, Heather tells us that while we are beings with bodies, she has none. We are alive, she acknowledges with antiseptic jealousy whereas she is just a voice. A voice we are told that will shepherd us along our way and one we quickly learn will become at once terribly annoying yet forgettably banal.
Heather starts off overly obsessed with the natural world, death and our relationship to it. “Look around”, she instructs. “Everything is supposed to be natural but it is all cultivated by humans.” Abandoning that thought as quickly as she began, Heather then demands, “Pick a grave and look at it. Is that person older than you?” As she continues to jettison shallow questions about the deceased and our relationship to the real or fabricated world, we realize that there will be little time for deep reflection or epiphany. Heather is platitude personified, filling our heads with faux gravitas in mini sound bites that are soon forgotten and barely thought about.
While her overly mechanical banter doesn’t wow us into revelation as she winds us around the streets turning us left or right and asking that we notice this or that, this is still a show with great charms thanks to the clever use of geography/technology, group dynamic and some very cool spots that we’d never encounter on our own.
On the technology front, as we wander around Houston from the East End to the Theater District we marvel as Heather seems to know just when our Metro Rail train will arrive and when we are to embark or get off. Even more remarkable is when we’re asked to look at the kids in a park playing basketball or skateboarding and sure enough, there they are. Exactly as described. It was so perfectly coordinated that I had to ask an organizer if this was staged and was assured it was not. Layer on the docu-realistic sound design of dogs barking, planes flying, funeral marches and crowds cheering where there is only urban street noise around us, and if nothing else Remote is one hell of a well-coordinated sight/sound piece.
But with any show reliant on technology, there are bound to be glitches and unfortunately I was the casualty of one of them. For about 15 minutes of the show, my sound sputtered out allowing me to hear only every fourth word or so. Not that I minded frankly as by that time I was tired of hearing the fluffy offerings Heather was spouting and was quite happy to simply walk along and take things in. However when our group was instructed to break into smaller pods and I couldn’t get the message, ending up totally soundless, lost and unsure what was going on, I had no choice but to ask for help. Smartly, Remote has assistants all along the route and a very helpful young woman was able to quickly get me back on track and once again listening to the patter.
If Heather’s message of death, decay and our reliance on mechanical systems seems paltry, her nods to our individual vs. group behavior land more solidly as she ushers us into some silly but entertaining crowd play. Calling us her horde, Heather alludes to the notion that while we’re all staunch individuals, we give up much control in the name of societal courtesies and majority behavior. When we are asked to raise our hands in protest on a busy downtown street, we do it. When we are told to waltz with abandon in a public place, we comply. We applaud strangers on the street and break into a sprint all because our group is cajoled into action. Why we do so and what that says about us is unfortunately dropped like most threads in this arc, but the fact that we physically engage and have fun doing so is itself an accomplishment.
But the real success of Remote is the places and spaces it took us. From the wildly intriguing cemetery to the eerie abandoned buildings in one particular East End neighborhood, to the magnificently opulent Morgan Chase lobby to the lush lagoon-like subterranean office complex that houses the Houston Grand Opera and Society for the Performing Arts, these are hidden treasure spaces in Houston we can now call our own. Isn’t it typical that it takes an outsider to scout our city for cool places and open our eyes to them? Just another reminder that we should all try more often to be tourists of unusual spaces in our own backyards. Note to self.
Tech coolness and locale reveal aside, Remote is a show trying desperately to be deeply meaningful. It wants us to think and feel, and after 2 hours of trudging around with a monotone voice in our heads, we’re looking for some payoff as well.
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About 3/4 of the way through the show Heather inexplicably morphs into Will, a voice that promises to take us to a different level. Yahoo, we think! Better late than never. Finally some juicy dissection on all we’ve seen and a push to force our introspective hand. Alas, no such thing. Will simply drones on in Heather-like fashion but with a bleaker outlook masquerading as acumen. “Welcome to the museum of status symbols”, Will tells us as we enter the Theater District’s parking lot. Sure it’s a good line, but so what? After putting up with two hours bombardment of similar ‘so what’ moments we’ve more or less tuned out anyway, checking our cell phones and wondering what traffic will be like on the way home. By the time our journey ends minutes later with a sudden and incongruous post-apocalyptic message, even an uber cool design effect can’t make us believe that this performance deserves more than a citation as a dandy city tour.
However, let’s let optimism reign. Remote, with all its shiny bits and bigger tarnished disappointments may just cultivate an appetite for more of this kind of alternative experience. It seemed like the age diverse 40 or so folks in my group generally enjoyed the experience well enough. If this is the case, sign me up to award the effort. Houston will owe Remote big time.
Remote Houston continues to April 15, Evergreen Cemetery, 500 Altic. For reservations visit countercurrentfestival.org. Free.
Alley Theatre continues with ten additional presentations of “Remote Houston” on Wednesdays, April 20, 27 and May 11; Thursdays, April 21 and May 5, 12; Fridays, April 22 to May 13. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $39.