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Gob Squad’s Kitchen
(You’ve Never Had It So Good)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gob Squad’s Kitchen
Gob Squad’s Kitchen
(You’ve Never Had It So Good)
Photo by David Baltzer.

Short of certain well-publicized nights at Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, it’s difficult to name recent New York performances more chaotic than the one I witnessed Friday night at The Public Theater. The difference between what I saw, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good), and that webby Broadway musical is that at mine, the chaos was planned. Or, er, partially planned. Well, at least considered. I think. And that randomness, within the strict boundaries of one company’s tightly defined aesthetic, made the evening a surprisingly exhilarating examination of existence as filtered through both live and filmed performance.

One of the major accomplishments of Kitchen, which first appeared on these shores as part of The Public’s 2011 Under the Radar Festival, is how difficult the show and the Gob Squad players (jointly from Germany and the U.K.) make it to distinguish between those two forms. Upon arriving, the audience is invited to tour the stage, most of which is configured to look like exactly the proper kitchen setting, but that’s the only up-close glimpse you’ll get; once the action begins, the complete set is blocked by a movie screen on which three different videos are constantly projected (in black and white). The action technically occurs in the same room as you, but you’re always somewhat removed from it.

That ends up being neither incidental nor undesirable, given that we’re supposed to see this as a window into life and not life itself. It begins as a tribute to, or perhaps an invocation of, the 1965 Andy Warhol film Kitchen, a fascinating 70-minute cinematic implosion that captured both the countercultural spirit and the social cluelessness of the time, and then expands its point of view into other Warhol works as diverse as his silent screen tests and titled avant-garde works Sleep, Eat, and even Blow Job. What results is a full retrospective of both Warhol’s work and the mindset of a chapter of history that, judging by its remnants, is not always easily explained.

One actor deployed the word “revolutionary” early on in describing these pieces’ impact, but the Gob Squad never quite makes that case given the extra 46 years or so of history that have since unfolded. What the group does succeed in doing, however, is transforming Warhol’s locked-in-the-moment creations pondering questions of identity into fresh evocations that rekindle those concepts for us today. As one reality dissolves and another is created, the past and present, fact and fiction, and drama and comedy all blend together so seamlessly (and sometimes harrowingly) that you feel as though impeccable coordination is the only way it could possibly work.

Yet even that’s not the case. The richest magic of the show comes from the components that are assembled, reassembled, and upended in increasingly unpredictable ways. First is that of the seven members of the Gob Squad, only four appear in any given performance; second is that four audience members are brought onstage (only if they’re willing, mind you) to augment the company, and play roles of astonishing length and (sometimes) bewildering complexity; third is that, because those roles are of the Gob Squadders themselves, the gender-bending aspects can become so total that you may witness, as I did, an explosive panoply of confusion and sexuality that transforms the deceptively sedate 1965 setting into an anything-goes 2012, while never violating the precepts or the delicacy of the previous era.

How exactly does it happen? Darned if I know. But at the performance I attended, one audience actor hammed his way through a screen test, another plowed into Sleep with his eyes open, and two others brought little more than glazed expressions and monotonous voices to two separate narrator roles — and the whole thing worked like a dream. I could cite plenty of sparkling individual moments, such as the enormous laugh the Sleep guy got from describing the odder details of his personal “glass half empty” philosophy, or how impossibly precisely timed crack-ups led to haunting hilarity. And the final images, of the audience members erasing from existence the actors who brought them up onstage, were chilling reminders of how the interplay between art and society, like that of then and now, is never as clear cut as we may want to believe.

Alas, because the eight glittering stars of my performance will never collaborate again, it’s pointless to dwell too much on the art they fashioned — except to point out that, if such synergy can occur on one random night, chances are it can on the night you attend, too. And Kitchen is well worth dining upon, as much for its inherent creativity as its once-in-a-lifetime approach to telling several stories at once about humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with itself. The only disappointment I noticed was my own: I was invited to come onstage and take part in Sleep, but declined, unaware that it would, um, climax in Kiss, a three-minute make-out session that compellingly closes the play. Live and learn. Even if you stay in your seat the entire time, at Kitchen you’ll manage to do easily both.


Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good)
Through February 5
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.publictheater.org