A sign at the entrance of the Red Eye Theater warns that Novelty Shots: A Political Fantasy “includes loud gunshots, stage fog and potential nudity.” That’s an intriguing prospect—and the most intriguing thing about it is the idea of “potential.” Even for a veteran of devised performance, it’s exciting to think that the performers might not know exactly what’s going to happen.
Novelty Shots is full of surprises, and that’s the best thing about it. It’s gratifying to watch a show that’s resolutely committed to defying all expectations, and there are a few particularly fun reveals. There is a reason, though, that most shows aren’t quite so surprising: constant randomness makes it hard to sustain momentum or develop themes, and no matter how raucous a finale gets, its impact is limited if the audience hasn’t become invested in the show’s development. (In this case, that may be precisely the point…but, still.)
The show, which runs through Sunday as part of Red Eye’s annual New Works 4 Weeks festival, was created by Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney, whose creative partnership is known as Fire Drill. Both are highly intellectual, and neither is afraid of challenging an audience. Though much of Novelty Shots is fun and showy, there’s an inescapably arid feeling to the work; while the performers put their minds and bodies into the show, you feel that their hearts are being kept at a distance.
Well, this is politics, after all. Programs—which are distributed only after the performance is finished, to avoid any spoilers—include two pages of quotations by sources ranging from literature scholar Sianne Ngai to performance artist Marten Spangberg to a 19th-century Protestant newspaper to Roger Ebert, all of which serve to situate Novelty Shots in the context of a discourse about anomie in the attention economy. What happens in Novelty Shots, though, feels like an illustration of that discourse more than a commentary on it or a development of its ideas; Novelty Shots could be happening in the background while someone in the foreground gave a TED talk about the impact of the Internet on society.
I’m hesitant to even hint at some of this show’s closely-guarded secrets, but suffice it to say that there’s a lot of talent on stage in Novelty Shots, and the show succeeds best when it simply gives that talent room to breathe. What cuts through the clutter of the World Wide Web, it seems, may be the same thing that attracted audiences to circus big tops and medieval troubadours and Roman storytellers: charisma and chutzpah. In that sense, Novelty Shots puts its own fears to rest.