Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Broken Codes, Theater Ninjas

Theater Ninjas calls itself the “food truck of Cleveland theater” since it is always moving from place to place, putting up their shows in different and often interesting venues. And many of their productions, while offbeat, have also been fresh and thought provoking.

But in Broken Codes, now playing in a space at the Rising Star Roastery on the west side, the food truck has skidded into a guardrail, spilling it’s contents on the road. And they’re asking the audience to pick it all up and make sense of it, which some will no doubt be willing to do. Others, of course, will just carefully drive around the incident and be on their way.

This show is the third in a series that the TN group has been working on for a while. It started with Code: Preludes and continued later with The Turing Machine. Central to these plays is the story of Alan Turing, the math genius at Britain’s Bletchley Park who led the team that broke the Nazi’s Enigma code.

In my review of that first play, I offered the wish that “future iterations of this experience will be more accessible to the average attendee and less smugly superior.” Alas, TN artistic director Jeremy Paul has decided to go in the latter direction with the current Broken Codes. And it doesn’t work for me, which is odd. I would seem to be the ideal audience for such a show, since I have read extensively about Alan Turing over the years and have enjoyed works of fiction related to the subject, such as Neal Stephenson’s dense but explicable novel Cryptonomicon.

The major problem with this production involves the premise that Paul states in his curtain speech. To paraphrase, he explains that modern technology (smart phones, computers, computer games, social media, etc.) is so confusing we can’t understand it by looking at it or dealing with it directly. Well, playwrights have been staring directly at imponderable issues for eons—including love, death, and the reason for living—without throwing up their hands and claiming it’s all too mysterious. Grappling directly with those mysteries is why we are attracted to theater and the stories that reside there.

Hewing to his premise, Paul and his hard-working minions create a collection of small vignettes, or performances, or art installations that touch on technology in occasionally understandable but mostly oblique ways. Then we, as individuals in the audience, are asked to look at it all and, as they say on their website, “decide how they all fit together.” Well, thanks for the help.

Try to pull all this together: A woman interacting with a computer with the aid of drawings from elementary school kids, a violin performance accompanied by electronic and computer music, a woman exercising her facial muscles and scrawling notes about selfies on transparent sheets projected on a screen, a couple scenes involving young female code breakers at Bletchley Park, a group of people reading from scripts about a “Beta uprising,” and so forth. And just to make it a bit more quizzical, these offerings are sometimes split up and mixed amongst the others.

Hey, it’s art! And what you get from it is…what you get from it. But what I don’t get is why theater artists don’t appreciate that making their material accessible, even in unconventional and non-linear ways, is not inherently offensive. I would actually like to understand what these people think about modern technology and its impact on society.

I don’t intend to be dismissive about the efforts of so many young, industrious and talented people. But my reaction may result, in part, from Theater Ninja’s dismissive approach to their audience. When you abdicate your responsibility to take your patrons on a decipherable journey—no matter how challenging—your food truck isn’t happily and inventively roaming the city. It’s up on blocks in the front yard.

Broken Codes
Through May 21, produced by Theater Ninjas at Rising Star Roastery, 3617 Walton Ave.,

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