Back in the 1980’s a standup comedian named Andy Kaufman decided that the “bits” and the “routines” he was doing professionally didn’t go far enough in allowing him to express himself. He approached the World Wrestling Federation and, in 1982, created a character that he subsequently inhabited so often and in so many contexts, the Letterman show, wrestling events, theatrical events, that he effectively created a permanent fourth wall around himself. He jettisoned his beloved TV character, the reason most of his audience knew him, stopped giving interviews as anyone other than “wrestling villain Andy” and, thus, challenged his audience to question the very nature of what was real about Andy Kaufman, the comedian and also the man. Many who were used to a traditional comedian’s approach didn’t “get it.” In fact, his insistence on hiding behind his own personal fourth wall made some of his audience literally hostile toward him. He didn’t care. He had a story to tell.
I thought about Andy Kaufman as I watched Wednesday night’s performance of UVX: The Luxury Universal e[X]perience at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side.
The premise of UVX is that a large corporation has found an algorithm to quantify “fun” and is now prepared to apply techniques to its filmic “experience” as various as audience voting, Rocky Horror-type trash tossing, multi-media and Erhardt Seminar Training, to create an interactive experience for the audience that is at once funny and bizarre. Yes, there is a goofed-up film, preceded by a mock trivia quiz with a somnambulistic rendering of the intro from A-Ha’s “Take on Me” as background Muzak. But the film is not the point. All the stuff that goes on in the foreground, with the (hopefully willing) participation of the audience is the point.
In true Andy Kaufman-like style, there is no program naming the creators of the show, listing the actors, or otherwise letting the audience know anything much at all about what it’s in for. There is only a small brochure which seems to resemble the escape safety brochure from a low-rent airline. This is rather a shame, as the actors playing the ushers, or “buddies”, were doing quite a good job, and I’d like to call them out by name if only I knew what their names actually were.
There was also, therefore, no way of discerning, on the night who, exactly, was responsible for creating the theatrical experience I was watching. Thanks to Google, though, I was able to discover that the piece was created by interactive theatre veteran Lyle Sterne and self-described multi-media jack-of-all-trades Alex Chmaj.
The UVX experience also gives a nod to amusement park rides, in the sense that the person who gets onto a ride at Six Flags is entering into an agreement that something artificial is going to, nonetheless, evoke an emotional response as if the circumstance is “for real.” UVX manages to accomplish this largely through the maintenance of the fourth wall I previously described – Sterne and Chmaj pretend, good and hard, that everything they’ve created is “for real”, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to suspend it’s disbelief and pretend that it’s real as well.
I’d like to say a few words at this point in praise of silliness. Theatre, particularly New York Theatre, isn’t often just flat-out silly. Unintentionally funny, perhaps, but not Monty Python-style, Kaufmanesque silly. With its battling stormtroopers wielding glowsticks and its gleeful “buddies” exhorting the audience to throw paper airplanes and otherwise have fun, even if one of the ushers should suffer bodily harm or even death, UVX is monumentally, supremely silly.
As with most audience-driven theatrical experiences, the show is more fun when the house is full. UVX makes a point (one of many) about the corporatization of entertainment by charging a premium to sit in the balcony, able to throw debris on the proles below but not (I assume, since I couldn’t see) engaged by the “buddies” or the stormtrooper characters. When I visited, there were some empty seats, but I could see that the audience members in front of me, who went “all in” with the participation aspect, were having a good giggle.
This is not the first time Sterne and Chmaj have collaborated, and it won’t, I assume, be the last, but I would encourage theatergoers to visit the Abrons Arts Center while they can still catch UVX and watch something that very few people are attempting to do these days – an example of commercial experimental theatre that requires the audience to engage in a way it may not be used to.
Andy Kaufman would love it.
UVX: The Luxury Universal e[X]perience will be playing at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York City, on Friday 3 November 2017:2:00 PM; 5:00 PM; 9:00 PM, Saturday 4 November 2017: 2:00 PM; 5:00 PM; 9:00 PM and on Sunday 5 November 2017: 1:00 PM; 4:00 PM
Tickets can be obtained via ovationtix at the URL below:
Or by phoning the box office at 646.941.9326