Review: In Carl Hancock Rux’s ‘Vs.,’ the Jury Is Out

Since the pandemic began, American courts have moved millions of hearings online, a development known as “virtual justice.” Carl Hancock Rux’s elliptical “Vs.” adapts virtual justice as virtual theater. In this court, the crime remains unnamed and the identity of the accused a mystery. The interrogator? That would be you. Or at least, a silhouette of you, with some mild technological wizardry superimposing someone else’s deep voice atop your blacked-out outline. Anyway, choose your Zoom background with care.

At the top of “Vs.,” a digital experience directed by Mallory Catlett and produced by Mabou Mines, a court clerk gathers its participants into an online chamber. A man (David Thomson) is called as a witness. A witness to what? The interrogator — the role is divided, seemingly randomly, among audience members — asks only two questions: If the witness would like a drink and if the witness was born in November. The witness responds to each with contempt, questioning the court’s values and taste. Here’s part of his answer on the birthdate issue: “Not if we are to consider an opposition to phallogocentricism and the hegemonic ideals contained in patriarchal culture uniting theory and fantasy, challenging such discourse within the frameworks of a constitution blown up by law.” Pity the stenographer.

Following this first sequence, the questioning repeats three times, with different audience members as the interrogator and other performers — Becca Blackwell, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Perry Yung — playing witnesses. The dialogue remains mostly the same, with a few variations, as though these are four musicians, each soloing on the same tune. The details never become more definite.

A cryptic trial pursuing a nameless crime will of course bring the works of Franz Kafka to mind. Though “Vs.” is more of a reverse Kafka, with the witnesses disdaining the court’s authority. “It’s your court,” each says. “Do as you wish. I’m not in it. I never was.” The court seems confused. Me, too, if I’m honest.

Rux, a breathlessly inventive multimedia artist, made a thrilling entrance about 20 years ago with “Talk,” an impressionistic puzzle box of a play about art, race, memory and power. “Talk” took a panel discussion as its form, inhabiting and deconstructing its rituals. So there was reason to hope that “Vs.” would bring that same ingenuity to a Zoom courtroom. But the show meshes with the medium only glancingly, mostly through a manipulation of speaker view and camera feed. It hasn’t fully considered what kinds of narrative, imagery and speech inhabit this space successfully. A text this dense, spoken by performers viewed from the chest up, their faces and bodies awash in visual effects, suffers without the mutual entanglement of actors and audiences both present in the same space. Via an online platform, my ability to absorb and parse the language seemed to recede with each repetition. Engagement was virtual, not actual.

I don’t take any pride in this inattention. It can represent an ugly kind of privilege. Because if your life or body or lived experience were really on the line, you wouldn’t have the luxury of distraction. But the abstraction of “Vs.” has a deadening effect. In that Zoom window, my face a void, I didn’t feel especially accountable or implicated, just anxious about whether or not any fidgeting (I’m an inveterate fidgeter) would upset the illusion.

Even as live performances return, I’m eager for theater artists to experiment with digital tools, discovering new possibilities and new transmedia forms. Nevertheless, “Vs.” feels like a mistrial.

Vs.
Through Aug. 8; maboumines.org. Running time: 55 minutes.

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