Review by Kathleen Campion
Playbill calls Before Your Very Eyes “ambitious,” and it is that. My generous guest at this performance at the Public said: “It had moments,” and it does.
Center stage in the Martinson Theater is a room full of kids playing Blind Man’s Bluff; a one way mirror separates them from the audience. Stage left and stage right are large screens. Inside the room, a consumer quality video camera, on a dodgy tripod, sends real-time video to those screens.
A disembodied interlocutor with a plummy accent tells them at the top that the audience is seated and watching them. The kids step to their side of the mirror and peer out, telling her they only see their own reflections. As Before Your Very Eyes progresses, the audience watches these seven lives in fast forward.
The voice reminds us—and the kids on stage—that there are messages to be delivered. She prompts them to tell us what they want, what they can do now that they are older, what they regret.
The themes here are as profound as they are obvious. We grow up fast. Puberty is a roller coaster with no seatbelts. We are not special. We rarely live up to our dreams. We all know we are going to die but secretly don’t believe it. Our most satisfying choices, in retrospect, are mundane: Those piano lessons paid off, and I’m glad I took care of my mother.
The episodic music, to which the children dance and sometimes lip-sync, provides a frame for the “growth spurt” notion of the piece. The show opens with “Don’t Stop Me Now: by Queen/Freddie Mercury with lyrics that underscore their youthful exuberance:
I’m a shooting star leaping through the skies
Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity
In their late teens/early twenties the sound turns to Dead Man’s Bones’ “My Body is a Zombie for You Tonight”:
I can’t fit in this skin
It’s worn and useless thin
Later, in one of the play’s inexplicably funny scenes, the young actors, dressed as their older selves, sing solo slices of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (I regret nothing.) They are pounding on one of the through lines about maturity and regret, but they are dressed like kids for Halloween, so it comes off as quite funny.
The video tricks work well. We see the very young actors on tape, even younger than they are on stage. This is the magic part—the “moments” as the young ones quiz their older selves. It’s more than a gimmick, and it speaks to long-term planning. Years must pass between the first taping and the later performance.
Before Your Very Eyes seems to borrow from both the film Boyhood and the fascinating 1958 Birth Cohort Study, which follows the lives of 17,000 people born in the U.K. in a single week in 1958. The edgy producers Gob Squad premiered Before Your Very Eyes in Belgium in 2012. This version, at the Public, has been created over the past two years with 8 to 14 year olds from the NYC area.
The young actors on stage—there are two gangs of kids who alternate performances—are artists in transition. When you realize actual growing time goes into the production, you must acknowledge something unusual is going on here. How did they get an 8-year old on screen talking to his 11 year old self? They waited.
Just as Boyhood earned kudos for doing what Hollywood never does, Before Your Very Eyes gets the same nod. No one does this in theater. So, when it works (again, moments), bravo! And when it doesn’t work (even at 70 minutes it got tedious) still bravo for innovation.
If I were a high school drama teacher, I would hope to produce this wonderful piece at my school. If I were just a New Yorker looking for an interesting night out, I could do better.
Before Your Very Eyes – created by Gob Squad
WITH: Mikai Anthony, Eloise Celine, Margalit Duclayan, Jasper Newell, Maeve Press, Matthew Quirk, Aja Nicole Webber. Rigley Riley (voice).
Performance coach is Bridget Kelso Anthony, Video design Gob Squad and Shawn Duan, stage manager Michael Alifanz.
At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan, through November 29. Running time: 70 minutes no intermission.