Bastian Trost, , left, Sean Patten and Berit Stumpf appear on the screen… (Steven Gunther )
Andy Warhol is sometimes blamed for ushering in the age of reality television. Nonsense. All those generically gleaming bachelors and plasticky real housewives, stretching out their time in the spotlight to absurd lengths, would have been given the hook long ago under his allotment of 15 minutes of fame.
Gob Squad, the highly inventive British-German theater collective, extends the gift of transitory celebrity to innocent theatergoers in the group's weirdly captivating homage to Warhol's underground movies, those rambling, semi-amateurish, intermittently hypnotic forays into the banality of urban hipsterism. Carting the crowded title "Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good)," this deftly engineered multimedia piece, which opened Thursday at REDCAT, loosely re-creates "Kitchen" and other Warhol films not to replicate them but to momentarily inhabit the liberated mind-set of their creation.
Four performers from the company, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Bastian Trost and Simon Will, attempt to transport themselves to Warhol's Factory, circa 1965, on the eve of a cultural explosion that will change the way people make art and make love, relate to one another, society and themselves. This is a formidable challenge and the ensemble members don't take it lightly at all.
They want to get the details just right in their setup for "Kitchen." Everything must be authentic — or close enough to pass. An inventory of the makeshift kitchen turns up a problem with the brand of bran flakes but at least there's Wonder Bread on hand, so what if the packaging has anachronistically scrolled across it the word "Classic." Much of the production's "reality," its wry zone of truthfulness, lies in the artists' awareness of the inevitable inaccuracy of their project.
There are no secrets here: The audience is invited to tour the studio before the performance properly begins. This area of the stage is located behind a screen. The action is projected onto this screen, which is divided into three panels. At the center is the set for "Kitchen," where the liveliest scenes occur. Granted, a good deal of the time is spent in a kind of warm-up, the actors organizing themselves for their activities, but there are eruptions of dancing, some horseplay involving food and a few wayward strands of philosophical banter to keep the work from seeming like an endless preamble.
Flanking "Kitchen" are re-creations of the Warhol movies "Sleep" and "Screen Tests." The focus changes, but the essential nature of the drama remains the same even when "Sleep" gives way to the film "Kiss" (which is the most oddly moving of these casual duplications). Nothing momentous happens in any of these segments but our attention is slowed to the point that the most minor shifts assume a grand significance.
The mad diversity of avant-garde art is united in its aim at perceptual renewal. Objects are defamiliarized so that we can be refamiliarized with them. Habits of seeing, codified in artistic conventions, are broken not merely to vex (though that's often part of the deal) but to sharpen vision.
A clock hanging in the kitchen tells the correct time. This is not an experience for the impatient. One hour, 40 minutes for a performance hardly constitutes a marathon duration, but it can feel long when the content is largely the stumbling creative process.
Pauline Kael once described Warhol and his cinematic kind as those "who expect the movie to happen when the camera is on" and wrote that their films "become the games that actors play…." And indeed the most delightful moments in this Gob Squad offering are those offhand interactions that unexpectedly begin to resonate, that accumulate with an emotion born out of presence rather than plot.
One by one the actors replace themselves with audience members, who are given headphones so that their lines can be fed to them. The participants are chosen among the willing — my head was ostentatiously buried in my critic's notebook each time a new recruit was needed — but it became surprisingly difficult to distinguish between the official and ad hoc performers. The amateurs seemed so professional and the professionals could seem so willfully amateur — which is precisely what Warhol was aiming for.
A magic door separates ordinariness and fabulousness, and anyone under the right heightened circumstances can walk through it. Gob Squad ingeniously reminds us that art may be the catalyst for this transformation, but life supplies the raw goods.