In the brief history of writing about the Brooklyn-based performance ensemble Radiohole (a group consisting mainly of the multi-talented Erin Douglass, Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorson-Gilette, and Maggie Hoffman), a series of journalistic clichés have already begun to emerge. These usually involve the words “enigmatic” and “anarchic,” and tend to include an exhaustive list of all the junk that the group has ladled into their shows.
In all fairness, like most clichés, they’re based in some sort of observable truth, and I’m no more immune to them than anyone else; on observing a rehearsal of their show FLUKE (at the Collapsable Hole in January), I gleefully scrawled down a list of all of the strange items piled high throughout the partially-converted Williamsburg garage: milk crates filled with rolled cable, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, an overhead projector, various power tools, a single toe shoe. One gets the sense that this is not the result of necessity, of a small company using their rehearsal space for storage, but an aesthetic choice. Radiohole’s design, like their shows, is reminiscent of the 17th-century “wonder cabinets” that were the precursors of museums, or of oddities like the Mercer Museum in Pennsylvania. Henry Mercer, an eccentric, pre-World War I tile millionaire, built a (literal) castle out of poured concrete and filled it with everyday items, with the hope that these items would one day become artifacts. The resulting museum is a cluttered, claustrophobic, and endlessly fascinating array of Americana. When Mercer built it, everyone thought he was nuts—the rough modern-day equivalent would be to shutter the cash registers at a Target or Home Depot and freeze it as a sort of Museum of American Consumerism—but the Mercer Museum indisputably captures an accurate picture of the soon-to-be-lost 1916 America.
I include this digression because it provides an apt description of what Radiohole is doing, intentionally or not—whether through spectacle, language, or music and sound design, they have assiduously managed to create a sort of torrential museum of 21st-century American madness. The shows not only reference but capture some essential essence of America to date, from 19th-century transcendentalism, to punk rock, to improv comedy, to bebop, to UFOs, to cowboys, to noir, to the swirling, decentered anti-narratives of Pynchon and DeLillo. I can’t speak to whether Radiohole has embraced Americana in any deliberate way—previous shows have referenced the French Situationist Guy Debord, the Nunavit province of Canada, Spaghetti Westerns, and the Nibelungenlied, among many other things—but there seems to be something unmistakably American (in the good, “fun-and-optimistic” way, not the bad, “ugly imperialist” way) about their exuberance, their energy, their limitless sense of potential. As William Carlos Williams said, the pure products of America go crazy, and in the case of Radiohole they’ve gone crazy in a really, really interesting way.
It has been said that Radiohole, like their compatriots The Collapsable Giraffe and The National Theater of the United States of America, are the offspring of the ’70s and ’80s New York avant-garde, artists like Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group, whose creations have as much to do with visual, conceptual, or installation art as they do with theater. It’s also been said that these groups have married this way of working with a sort of spectacular, vaudevillian energy. They might not be “plays” in any traditional sense, but all the way from their website to their press materials to their live performances, Radiohole are show people through and through, hearkening back to a much older tradition than that of American playwriting. Radiohole works by association, and FLUKE seems to have started as a sort of adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The show very quickly veers from there into a series of riffs on water, nautical life, and 19th century America, all topped off with the crazy stunt of painting fake eyes on their eyelids and performing with their eyes shut. As their website says, “Of course it’s impossible to contain the ocean in one show, but Radiohole comes very near to doing just that!” While as far as I could tell, the closest thing to the “entire ocean” in the Collapsable Hole that night was a plastic party fountain filled with a mixture of tap water and Emergen-C, there is something serious about this joke. Cramming an entire ocean into 70 minutes (or so) in a converted Williamsburg garage seems emblematic of what Radiohole does and continues to do. It might be impossible to contain all of the collected detritus of recent human experience in one performance ensemble, but Radiohole comes very near to doing just that. In their mad, beatnik language and their cobbled-together creations of found junk and reconfigured mp3s, Radiohole brings an energy and irreverence to their work that theater desperately needs. One playwright friend has told me that she always goes to Radiohole shows because she hates them while she’s watching them, but loves them when she thinks about them afterward.
Radiohole is also well-known as a directorless ensemble. Unlike, say, the work of Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, or Richard Maxwell, all of which are driven by a single auteur’s artistic vision, Radiohole operates more like a sort of anarchist affinity group. They work by consensus (which really means by fighting until they’re all exhausted enough to agree on something), but they’re small enough, and know each other so well, that this type of creation-by-radical-democracy seems to be working. Indeed, as I watched the rehearsal, I noticed that they completed one another’s sentences, laden as they were with bizarre and/or obscure references, ranging from Gary Null to Merce Cunningham. They’re like an old married couple, if that couple consisted of four people and was maybe on LSD. As I watched Maggie Hoffman squirt lotion onto Eric Dyer’s shaved head over and over again—he must have had the softest scalp in Brooklyn that night—I was both amused and inspired, struck by the profound act that I was privileged to witness. I was seeing a genuine moment of creation, watching people insert themselves, physically, into that process. Eric Dyer has said that, unlike a playwright or director who creates a piece of work until it’s finished, Radiohole has a sort of ongoing process, and at some point—almost an arbitrary one—they invite people in to see it. I, for one, am happy to be invited.
Radiohole’s FLUKE will be performed January 11-28, 2007 at The Collapsable Hole, 146 Metropolitan Ave. at Berry St., Brooklyn. For tickets and info, call 718-388-2251 or visit radiohole.com.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.