As we filed into the theater, the room was already filled with the lulling sound and repetitive film sequence of skateboard trucks rolling over a ramp – a frequency that began to sound like crashing waves as the audience drowned it out.
I’d seen Watts last year at the Someday Lounge, and was expecting a much different performance than Transition delivered. Granted, this stuff is all trademark Watts (it could come from no other mind than his), but it isn’t as immediately gratifying or uproariously funny as DISINFORMATION. With this work, he’s upped the absurdity and made a more challenging piece that is very much in transition. It plays with ideas rather than just satirizing them. I felt like the audience’s attempts to laugh were stymied so early on that they began to believe this to be Watts’ “serious piece” and spent the rest of the show missing his gags. Watts knocked us off balance and kept us from regaining our stride. Transition doesn’t offer clear conclusions and each time the audience relaxed into the rhythm of one segment, it would be violently interrupted by the next, discordant thought. Those droning skateboards from the beginning of the piece were the last soothing moment the audience had.
Early on in the performance, Watts, clutching a goblet in his billowy white shirt, delivers what the screen behind him declares to be “AN SOLILOQUY.” I can think of no better catch-all description for the show than that caption – the skewed grammar, the mock-theatrical airs, and the ever-present strain of self-indulgence. This show is the “introspective” Reggie Watts. Granted, “introspection” to Watts still means semi-automatic rifles, parody films, and musical mash-ups.
Introspection does not, however, equate to self-reflection; if anything, it results in self-indulgence. At one point, the cast sets up an equation – DE-EVOLUTION + REVELATION = DEVILATION – implying that we are aware of the break-down in our relationships. The trio onstage immediately launches into a round-robin chorus of classically-awkward break-up lines and stuttered explanations, but just because their words give the impression of careful thought doesn’t mean they’re logical. Their lines sound like the jittery babble of people who’ve thought for too long about their words, only to end up further obfuscating their meaning. Most of Watts’ monologues (because they’re all delivered as such, even when they’re directed at others) feel eerily like a case of the known unknowns, full of tautology and circular logic.
After seeing Watts last year in the cabaret-lounge set-up of the Someday, it was clear that he and his cohorts were stretching out and taking advantage of the more traditional theater setting for this piece. The production is undoubtedly spare, but Watts has a clear preoccupation with the trappings of the theater and mainstream visual mediums like film. The cast flits between melodramatic BBC-style period romance, mock-awards show introductions, and an 80s teenage-coming-of-age flick, each of which seem chosen for their over-the-top self-indulgence. The vignettes are filled with corny lines and a fixation on the all-important banalities of the character’s lives.
All of the actors are plagued by total solipsism; they can’t conceive of anyone outside of themselves, so everything exists as a direct result of their own thoughts. When Watts tries to “comfort” a disconsolate friend, he offers a candy-filled come-on that is uniquely self-centered and oblivious to her problems. It is as though he is talking into a mirror, which only becomes more obvious when he films himself singing, turning his back to the audience to watch his lips projected across the screen. An aspect of this deals with the prismatic effect of social media and recording, but it is way too simple to characterize this as some rant on how Twitter and Facebook have alienated us from one another (especially for Watts, who has a pretty big online presence). It ends up feeling like these technologies are more symptomatic of our confidently self-absorbed culture than the cause of it.
It was funny, though not a big leap, to move from Watts’ mock-narcissism to the self-aware pomposity of Beyonce as channeled through Neal Medlyn. Where Watts’ characters belie their egotism with their false talk of how conscientious and generous they are, a pop diva like Beyonce stakes her career on an audience that believes she truly is more important than anyone else. I suppose people are only as important as who you ask.