The Oregonian, April 22, 2001
By Judy Berck

“If the audience members jump into the picture and take the initiative to do what they want, they’ll have fun.”   —Bryan Markovitz, Liminal’s artistic director and one of its founders

Theater has served usefully as a mirror of contemporary society’s preoccupations ever since the days of Sophocles and Thespis. When something new appears in this mirror, it’s worthwhile to consider what it reflects about society. Liminal’s production of “Objects for the Emancipated Consumer,” which opened Thursday and runs through May 19 in the top floor of the Dekum Building downtown, may be such a mirror. Like many of the other abstract, experimental shows the company has put on since it started in Portland in 1996, this production invites us to take a close look at society’s obsession with technology.

The production’s content is based on fairly familiar and accessible elements: a spy drama/murder mystery that takes place at an airport, with a handful of quirky, humorous characters. But the production’s form is unusual. The stage is divided into six areas by metallic tape, with actors performing in each area singly or in groups—simultaneously. Audience members are encouraged to leave their seats and walk around the airport’s “gates” to observe what the actors are doing in each area. What they will find, based on a recent viewing at the Seattle Fringe Festival, are six episodes, and in each episode between one and four often funny, puzzling scenes that happen all at the same time. They each have something to do with the murder mystery, with clues and threads scattered throughout. There is also plenty of technology—videos projected, cameras taking shots of audience members, references to Palm Pilots, tape recorders and more. Holding it together at the center is an interactive “duty-free shop.” There audience members can select pictures of the actors in the show. Each picture has a bar code on the back, and when the “clerk” scans a picture’s bar code, it causes a cavalcade of changes to the lights, sound and sometimes to the action itself. An actor might be paged to go from one area to another, for instance. At some point, there is climactic movement and some kind of closure, although not in the usual dramatic sense. The experience has much in common with the interactive nature of surfing the Net.

“What we do is sort of like hypertext,” says Bryan Markovitz, the group’s artistic director and one of its founders. “Much like the way we surf on the Internet, you choose the directions you go, and you decide what speed you want to go at. Do you want to follow one actor as he moves from space to space, or do you want to follow what happens in a specific space all the time, or do you want to exclusively just watch the videos that are happening?” Hypertext, for those who have managed to avoid the term, refers to the nonlinear possibilities offered by the Internet. Every time you click on a Web page link, you are in effect following your own associations and interests to create a particular experience for yourself, rather than following one author’s narrative line from first word to last.

Liminal’s production strives for much the same effect. “We wanted to do a show where you had simultaneous actions happening all over the space, and you, the audience member, got to walk through it and experience it at different levels according to what interests you,” Markovitz says. “You could follow a story line that’s emerging in this continuous narrative, or you could step back and watch it unfold before you. It’s simultaneous, and continuous, so you can come and go as you want, and move through it however you like. This is more like the way people consume in this culture—they pick things, they take what they want and leave what they don’t want. It’s entirely what you make of it.” This might jog memories from theater experiments in the 1970s, and it does share something with the conceptual and interactive productions of that era.

But with the Liminal company members’ average age at 28, the production’s inspiration springs from a sensibility steeped in technological experiences that didn’t exist in the ’70s, plus avant-garde theater and a dollop of anthropology. Liminal’s eight founding members graduated together from Trinity University in San Antonio, where they looked at theater in the broader context of performance in a culture. “That took us into the world of anthropology on one end, and the traditions in America and Europe of the avant-garde on the other side,” Markovitz says. A big influence, he adds, was the work of the innovative Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was persecuted by Stalin. Meyerhold developed a style inspired by constructivist art that exploded the conventions of naturalism and included dynamic acting areas filled with abstract forms. Other influences include the writings of symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner on transformation from ritual to performance, as well as New York playwright/director Richard Foreman, because “he takes the reality of life and then turns it upside down and spins it around 150,000 times, and you feel like you’re in a totally different parallel universe,” Markovitz says. These influences have given Liminal some of its creative momentum. “There were six or seven of us who had a passion for seeing theater go in another direction in the U.S.” Markovitz says. “I agree with Arthur Miller, who said that theater in America is sort of like all of these little puddles around the country that are just slowly drying up.” Technology’s rise is one big reason for the decline in live theater, Markovitz says.

“Live performance doesn’t have a real strong place in the U.S.,” he says. “It has a lot to do with our being in a media culture: Why go to the theater when you can see better theater on television or in film? So a lot of those things led us to question, how can we find a different way to do theater that is trying to respond to what culture is right now?”

“Objects for the Emancipated Consumer” is a departure from some of the things Liminal has done in the past four years. “Now we’re at a point where we are trying to apply the techniques we’ve been working on to a deeper level to our understanding of media and space relationships of audience and actors,” Markovitz says. 

It may sound as if Liminal is trying to blur the boundary between theater and visual art, and it is, but that is not the company’s primary goal.

“Our principle goal is to get the audience back involved in theater. We want people to respond to theater like they respond to other forms of media around them: the way that you play on the Internet, the way that you watch television,” Markovitz says.

The production grapples with the way we all behave in this techno-centric world, especially now that computers are an intrinsic part of our lives.

“In the way we use computers, we don’t have a fear of them, indeed we try to maximize their use, and make them in some ways as human as everything else,” Markovitz says.

“We’re trying to understand what does it mean to be human at a point when so much of your life is mediated by technology, and so much of what you understand your experience to be is virtual or climate controlled. How do we evolve in that? What if it all comes crashing down? Big questions, but we are trying to examine them in little ways.”

Lest anybody worry that this performance will be too dense to enjoy, Markovitz says that the spy-drama theme was chosen to make the performance fun and approachable.

“We don’t want people to come to our shows and try to think about, what’s the meaning of life; we just want people to have fun.

“If they get something beyond that that makes them think about it for a few more days after that,” he adds, “then we’ve succeeded at theater.”