Times are strange — even stranger, perhaps, than the art made in response to the times. Still, it's good to see a creative resistance underway. For a convincing case in point, consider New York-based choreographer/director Faye Driscoll's "Thank You for Coming: Play," which opened Thursday night at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
"Play" starts awkwardly but blooms into rambunctious spontaneity, with a healthy dose of anxiety throughout (there's even a cathartic audience participation song on the subject of anxiety). The Bessie award-winning Driscoll simultaneously distracts and engages us with a counterpoint to the usual political theater. We're all players, after all, whether we like it or not.
The piece is the second in a trilogy ("Thank You for Coming: Attendance" was seen at the Walker last February). The use of rituals connects the two, but this aspect is the least satisfying in the new work. After ditching our shoes, we enter the theater in groups of 13 and end up onstage. After listening to a modest manifesto read by Driscoll and filling out a questionnaire, we head for our seats. The significance of the exercise is revealed later but feels rushed in the initial execution.
Driscoll draws upon a fascinating blend of influences in "Play." It's hard to pin down all the sources of inspiration for the movement.
We see menacing facial expressions, over-emoting, radical vocal modulations and herky-jerky poses. Perhaps Kabuki, Southeast Asian dance-dramas and slapstick comedy fueled her imagination. The costumes seem drawn from a child's dress-up closet.
The heart of "Play" is its antic, often hilarious physical storytelling, as interpreted by the seriously sharp performers (Sean Donovan, Alicia Ohs, Paul Singh, Laurel Snyder and Brandon Washington, with sound designer Bobby McElver).
Driscoll rushes onstage from time to time, like a conductor who can't stand to stay on the podium while the orchestra is having so much fun. She also rages through a protest song with the others serving as her backup band, typical of the evening's DIY sensibility.
A shift in tone midway departs from the earlier chaos. A few audience members return to the stage, and the performers engage in conversations around them, saying some words aloud while mouthing others, as if dealing with a microphone malfunction.
The topics — loneliness, anticipation, uncertainty — reflect the concerns of our complex times, while the approach reminds us that we can never fully hear all there is to be heard. Perhaps this is a survival mechanism in an increasingly noisy and often cruel world.
Without spoiling how the audience questionnaires are used, the point is that we all share similar desires and concerns. The collective effort of dozens of people picking up a pencil and trusting their random thoughts to the whims of strangers gives reason for hope.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.