Ping Chong’s Truth & Beauty, which is getting its Boston premiere from Company One, is an agitprop performance-art work that moves with a nothin’s-gonna-stop-me-now roar like that of a Harley Davidson tearing down a highway. Unfortunately, you don’t have to listen too closely to this production to hear the fits, starts, and stalls in the machinery. There are moments of fine acting from Shawn LaCount and Mark VanDerzee, who glide through various roles. But it’s as if the vehicle they’re riding were about to run out of gas, so they’re flooring the pedal to get the most mileage from their limited supply of dramatic fuel. The effect is that of a multimedia joyride that shocks the senses. But the high-octane velocity often leaves you blinded by polemical dust.
Throughout his 30 years as a theater artist, Chong has accumulated a battery of honors and awards, including two Obies, for his performance pieces, many of which involve multimedia maneuvering and a collage style of pasting skits and monologues together. Most often Chong and frequent collaborator Michael Rohd are directly involved with the actors and design teams as their stylized work is developed. The pair were in Cambridge last year to create Reason at the late Market Theater. Although some of the snapshots in that pastiche were a tad whimsical, each one bore Chong’s trademark demonstration of society’s overwhelming impact on personal relationships. Written in the wake of Columbine and unveiled at West Virginia Tech in 1999, with Chong directing Rohd and Jeffrey Rose, Truth & Beauty also demonstrates society’s effect on the way individuals relate to others and perceive themselves. This message blares from the script, which was published in American Theatre in 2001. Company One’s restaging, however, is more like a generic cover: it carries the tune but doesn’t convey the soul.
Under the sure direction of Michelle Baxter, a series of loosely tied sketches delves into the corrupt roots of capitalism and corporate culture to show how these American cornerstones give rise to emptiness, loneliness, and violence. We see two businessmen devise a commercial that portrays a visit to their store as an occasion to spend quality time with one’s children. We witness an address by a trainer at the US Army School of the Americas who shouts that acquiring grace under pressure and disregard for human feeling will " help you not just on your job with us but when you re-enter the corporate world. " In what nods at a linear narrative, we intermittently follow the growing estrangement of a machismo-wielding but ailing father (LaCount) and his insecure son (VanDerzee). The latter is seemingly modeled on American terrorists like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who co-opted theories learned at Harvard to validate his actions.
Scenes are broken up by surges of hardcore industrial music during which slogans like " Your Life Incorporated " and " Faster Is Better " are flashed on Karim Badwan’s slick set while the actors thrash. The skits progress while sporadic videos stream from three hanging monitors. Snippets of familiar commercials and footage of what’s happening on stage are broadcast in an effort to satirize the daily ambush of media images. But instead of revealing anything revolutionary about the mind-numbing effect of channel surfing, the fragmentary blitz just echoes the agitated trappings it criticizes. Anæsthetization is better communicated by the presence of two mute, lab-coat-clad " stagehands " (Mason Sand and Joshua McCarey), who assist with and react to events, as though signaling our roles as accomplices in our own brainwashing.
It’s natural to be struck by the urgency of the playwrights’ Marx-meets-Veblen point — that capitalism corrodes our morality and individuality and propagates the hard-nosed iniquity of a global reach — even as US troops bomb Baghdad. But long before special-operations forces moved in and American officials beseeched Iraqis not to torch their oil wells, the truth in Beauty was a well-trammeled field. Leftists’ anti-globalization manifestoes have become so entrenched in the culture that they now possess marketability in their own right (see Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, or anything from maverick intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Oscar winner Michael Moore).
Still, Truth & Beauty is a stinging reminder of what can happen when culture treats violence flippantly. At one point a character says that advertising " has literally colonized our minds. " As America moves in to colonize Iraq, it’s critical to consider, as Chong does, the qualities and qualifications of the colonists.