It seems like September is the time of year when Portland likes to prove it can deliver cultural programming on par with a major metropolis. Case in point: on a single day it was theoretically possible to participate in the TBA:07 noontime chat on art in the social environment, head to the east side for a free, semi-secret warehouse performance by Grizzly Bear and Deerhunter, sneak in some film shorts at the 2007 Bicycle Film Festival, hit the convention center to cheer like a schoolgirl for Barack Obama, and still have time to attend the $100/head Justin Timberlake/Timbaland fundraiser at the Rose Garden.
But the truth is, you could have just skipped all of that in favor of one show: Reggie Watts’ Disinformation, a meta-work that incorporates and parodies all of the above and more. Almost every modern populist form of presentation and performance, really. Oh, and he does it in an hour.
Raised in Great Falls, Montana, Watts is probably best known in the Pacific Northwest as the voice (and afro) of the Seattle neo-soul/rock band Maktub. He’s since relocated to New York to focus on absurdist comedic performances, enfolding his music into a larger format of spoken word and video. With Disinformation, he steps his game up even further, drafting a line-up that includes Tommy Smith’s writing chops, Amy O’Neal’s choreography, and Orianna Hermann’s singing and acting.
The work opens with a video directed by Jakob Lodwick (co-founder of video sharing site Vimeo) featuring a dimly-lit Watts over-genuinely pontificating on the year 2012 and the dawning of a major shift in humanity — all set to an upbeat corporate jingle. Low-fi web video, corporate PR shilling, and new-age guru mumbojumbo? Check. And we’re barely even a minute into the show.
Watts spends the next hour flipping between pseudo-academic lecturing (complete with an impenetrable, contradicting lexicon), fake pharmaceutical ads, outbursts of complete gibberish, stand-up comedy, impersonations, and environmental vocal foley. Peppered throughout are songs constructed on-the-fly by Watts using a multitrack live looper — a technique made popular by artists like Jamie Lidell and KT Tunstall. The mechanics are pretty simple: Watts lays down a track of beatboxing, loops it, adds another, and another, until he’s got a full beat to sing or rhyme over.
Although Watts is the star here, his collaborators amp up their presence as the show proceeds. Tommy Smith comes on stage as a reticent spokesman / android of a faux-phamaceutical outfit called Carnaidesai. Orianna Hermann plays a cross between a corporate workshop leader, an episode of Schoolhouse Rock!, and a diva. But Amy O’Neal stands out the most, spending two-thirds of the show sitting on a chair behind Watts, starting intently at her MacBook in a subtle parody of modern laptop-based performance. Just when you begin to wonder if she’s actually doing something or just idly browsing Facebook, she roboticly descends a ladder to the stage and busts out with a hip-hop dance routine that wouldn’t look out of place in a Rihanna video. The whole crew finishes up with an all-singing, all-dancing review, backed by a giant American flag and the emphatic assertion that the whole thing is “not political.” Indeed.
The risk with schizophrenic, postmodern works like Disinformation is that they’re often shallow, tired rehashes of populist counter-culture views, especially when they cover issues like excessive consumption, violence in hip-hop, objectification of women, and environmental destruction. Watts avoids this trap solely through his own talent; he’s genuinely funny, has great timing, and a hell of a voice. The show stays self-aware throughout — it’s also commentary on itself, after-all — and Watts thankfully never forgets that he’s there not just to enlighten, but to entertain.