BOTTOM LINE: The black guy dies first. The white people complain. The native woman sits motionless in the corner—ignored and noble. These are the rules of our time.
New Stage Theatre Company explores the rules we live by in 2017 through a collage theatrical event that is based on the genius of Charles L. Mee. For those expecting “a play,” be warned. Anything with Mee attached isn’t quite conventional. All of Mee’s work is published online; it can be read and produced for free, save for the condition that the work is changed depending on the company and historical moment. What remains in Rules is partly Mee’s words (themselves often borrowed from elsewhere) and also the words—including quotations by Ralph Ellison and others—of new inspiration.
If ultimately there is nothing new in Rules, that’s on purpose: all the good ideas have already been thought of and our goal as artists is to reinvent them. The simplicity is brilliant, and a good way to remind ourselves that in the madness of this moment in American history, these stories have been told. Were we paying attention the first time? We are not exceptional. The people of the first nations knew all about this land before we got here. We are not smarter than them. Fascism exists. Sexism prevails. White people will lose. Eventually. These are the rules.
Ildiko Nemeth’s version hauntingly places a native woman (Gloria Miguel) on stage at the very beginning of the evening, in a corner by the bathroom no less. She remains a statue until a brief monologue, then is motionless again for the duration of the performance. Dimly lit, Nemeth’s choice here reminds us that while we get out the protest signs (again) and plan our next move, these things have all been seen before. Maybe we should talk to Ms. Miguel, since on our trips to the bathroom we ignore her as much as the play does.
I can’t say that much of the rest of the play moved me in a similar way. The trick of Mee’s collages is to stay universal without becoming unplayable, and attempting to accomplish too much with limited resources. Ildiko sets up a kind of gallery space for viewing this play. Upon arrival a projection is boldly framed with a fancy gold frame, and etiquette rules chime by as musak tediously plays. I wanted the play to get dirtier, tearing us from this gallery space into the cruel realities of our work ahead. Rules doesn’t deliver here and remains a shiny, pleasant version of what could really cut into the viciousness of our time.
I understand this is a new permanent home for the company. I’m interested to see what more they can pull out of this black basement. It could be interestingly restricting or possibly too sterile for much good; let’s hope for the former. Also note: the space is in a hostel in Harlem—heads up in case you’re lost like I was. But maybe getting lost is the goal of Mee’s collage work. You’ll find your way eventually.
Rules is conceived and directed by Ildiko Nemeth. Based on the play The Rules by Charles L. Mee with additional text by Ralph Ellison and Vine Deloria Jr. The costume design is by Brandon Lee Olson. The lighting design is by Federico Restrepo. The projection design is by Nemeth, Chris Sharp, and Alex Santullo. The cast is Dana Boll, Adam Boncz, Markus Hirnigel, Brian Linden, Tom Martin, Gloria Miquel, Brandon Lee Olson, Jeanne Lauren Smith, and Conor Weiss.
Innovative Theatre Award: Outstanding Production of a Play (Nominee)
Innovative Theatre Award: Outstanding Costume Design (Nominee)
Innovative Theatre Award: Innovative Design (Nominee)