Real Krafty

Show #34: HyperReal, Sara Kraft/KraftyWork, March 18.

Sara Kraft in HyperReal

Multimedia theater artist Sara Kraft’s HyperReal takes as its starting point the life-changing traumatic experience of seeing Jaws as a four-year-old–followed close at heels by the first glimpse of a real ocean, an unfortunate accident and an ill-considered Universal Studios tour–and spins it out into a dizzying treatise of sorts on the nature of experience and reality, noumenal, phenomenological and virtual.

For the piece’s world premiere at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Forum stage is dominated by a large diaphanous screen on which images are projected and superimposed throughout the show. Sometimes writer/director Kraft performs behind the screen and projected onto it, and other times she stands at a small command center off to the side of the stage, with a laptop and a fishbowl, into which she dips dolls and a toy shark as the story demands.

As Kraft toys with the nature of memory and experience through image, anecdote and explanation of challenging concepts, she notes how the word “avatar” has moved 180 degrees from meaning the manifestation of the divine in concrete physical form to referring to the idealized virtual manifestation of a real-life person for online interaction. Kraft talks about stealth drone pilots dropping real bombs from real unmanned planes by playing video games in a comfortable office in New Mexico. She even incorporates last week’s news story about a South Korean couple who let their three-month-old daughter starve to death while they spent all their time in a cyber cafe raising a virtual daughter in an online role-playing game, which fits in perfectly with her general theme.

It ties in beautifully with an earlier anecdote about a shut-in who watched TV and listened to the radio and police scanner from her couch all at once, all day and all night, and Kraft (or her first-person character) worrying that whatever happened to this person might happen to her. And in a way, it does. She talks about giving up live performance to make money in film and video special effects, then finding that too dehumanizing and devoting herself to performance, only to find that her performances came more and more to resemble the video special effects work she used to do. She strikes a connection between being a premature baby in an incubator and bonding with machines instead of human contact as a possible explanation for why she spends so much with computers and needs them to feel connected to the real world as if she’s unaware that that’s how nearly everybody in this country lives now, but of course she’s not. She talks about how people’s memories of what their online avatars did become jumbled together with and no less “real” than their real-world memories, and ties that in with how real dreams and fantasies seem compared with actual events, and raises the question of how much we can trust our memories and our senses. In a way it’s a very dense, data-rich show with more to chew on than you can keep track of, and that’s deliberate.  It builds into a cacophony that practically challenges you to follow it and finally makes it impossible, as an illustration of the staggering noise-to-signal ratio of the information age. Ultimately even the wearying bits of the show feel into that feeling of being overwhelmed, and it’s a startlingly effective finale.

Kraft is a compelling storyteller, with a vocal cadence more than a little reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, with similar calm breathy delivery, poignant pauses and sly smile–a similarity that of course is much more noticeable in another high-tech performance artist than it might be otherwise. Kraft accentuates her storytelling with lots of poetic repetition that builds on itself and an expressive sort of personal sign language that becomes visual shorthand for some of the most oft-repeated elements.

One bit that does get pretty tedious is when she goes behind the screen and runs back and forth toward a video camera, her image shown onscreen in triplicate or more, while she rhapsodizes about “the dancer, the real dancer.” (Or later a “real actor,” the idea being that this is the part where we’re asked to imagine that a real dancer or actor is performing.) Although these real hyper segments have some amusing and thought-provoking lines, the blissed-out repetition is wearying and so is all the back-and-forth, like when a kid with a new video camera zooms in and out, in and out.

Recurring throughout the piece are a series of sequences with Jesse Hewit as an insecure, eager-to-please 29-year-old trying over and over again to record an appealing video introduction for online dating, his face full-screen in a Mac Photo Booth window. With a hilarious double dose of off-putting, trying-too-hard enthusiasm, he tries to talk up how athletic, outgoing, hard-partying and serious he is, but no sooner does he get going than his chatter starts to go off the rails into sad, self-contradictory or just plain crazy talk. These segments are interspersed with Kraft’s monologues but never tied in directly. The thematic connection is clear enough.

The most puzzling component is the role of dancer/choreographer Sonsherée Giles of AXIS Dance Company. Giles is already standing on a small platform when the audience enters, in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David. She stays standing there for the entire show with an impassive expression on her face, slowly shifting her position in ways that look like stretching while keeping her eyes fixed on the audience. Sometimes she’s projected onto the screen, in a solarized or otherwise slightly altered image, but she never speaks, and only very occasionally do her movements seem to have any connection with what’s going on in the rest of the show. Is she in some way supposed to be Kraft’s avatar, or do her steady movements simply give us something to look at during the short lulls when there’s nothing else going on?  I have no idea, though she’s fascinating to watch, and during those lulls she serves as a reminder that the rest of the time the eye is drawn primarily to the screen when one is available, live performance or no.

Also present at the outset are the projected words “THE TRUTH IS,” and the two hours that follow are largely devoted to bouncing around the question Pontius Pilate asked and philosophers have been asking for centuries. It’s the sort of question that can never really be answered, but the reward is found in the asking, and if Kraft’s compelling new piece leaves you with more questions than answers, then it’s done its job.

HyperReal plays through March 20 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., San Francisco.

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