You could describe Miranda July’s “Society’’ as an innovative theatrical experiment that illustrates the myriad ways societies form, cohere, change, fracture, and maybe persevere over time.
Or you could describe it as a whimsical excursion into make-believe. You’d be on solid ground either way.
July herself describes her new participatory piece as a work in progress, and there were certainly times when it felt that way, complete with dead spots and dead ends, as she performed the 80-minute “Society’’ for the first time Saturday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
But more often the versatile filmmaker-author-actress-performance artist managed to sustain the elaborate conceit underpinning “Society’’ and to maintain an atmosphere of discovery and what-happens-next curiosity in the audience.
Who are absolutely key to the entire enterprise, by the way. The word “interactive’’ gets tossed around a lot in theater circles, but that doesn’t begin to describe the level of audience participation in “Society.’’ (It can lead to discomfiture, as yours truly would learn about halfway through Saturday night’s show). At one point, there were as many people on the stage as there were in the seats, and July was just a face in the crowd.
Whether leading the proceedings or submerging herself in them, she projected a disarming blend of earnestness, deadpan irony, and serene confidence that she could eventually pull together the disparate pieces of “Society’’ into a meaningful whole. (An ICA spokesperson said July plans to further develop the show and expand it by 30 minutes).
When July first walked onstage, she said nothing for several moments, instead engaging in a slow, trance-like dance. When she did begin to speak, she suggested a bold proposition to the audience. “What if you just stayed? You didn’t go home,” July said, adding “Maybe this is it. Me. You. Us.’’
She asked for a vote on whether we would be willing to permanently reside in the ICA’s Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater and become members of what she called “New Society.’’ Fists in the air, shouting “Aye!,’’ the mostly young audience assented, and what unfolded over the next hour-plus was an exercise in accidental community.
With gentle humor, July aimed to create a collegial vibe, less “Lord of the Flies’’ than E pluribus unum, with a general air of striving toward a common goal. But “Society’’ also sounded wistful notes that tapped into our yearning for those in the outside world with whom we’d ostensibly severed ties, on the simple passage of time, and on the friction and fault lines that inevitably arise when human beings attempt the complicated business of living together.
As the years ostensibly passed inside the theater (the timeline ultimately ran to 2033), July offered periodic updates on what was happening in New Society. She described, for instance, the development of a caste system whereby those in the front rows achieved lofty social status while those in the back rows lapsed into drug and alcohol abuse. Also, July observed drily, “The sex-having was out of control.’’ She interviewed people onstage about whom they missed the most in the outside world, and projected their smartphone pictures of their loved ones on a large screen.
Notably, though, music was first in the creation of our new polity: July asked for a volunteer to compose an anthem, whereupon a woman sat down at the onstage keyboard and promptly created a simple but strangely poignant tune that consisted, in its entirety, of “Don’t go home/ Stay with me/ New Society/ New Society.’’ At July’s instruction, she would go on to play the anthem periodically throughout the evening.
“In terms of government, I feel comfortable being the leader,’’ July deadpanned. So, under her guidance, audience members agreed on such lineaments of a new nation as a form of currency and a constitution consisting of laws drafted by spectators (“People must assume the best about each other’’ was one suggestion). Occasionally the theater was plunged into darkness, effectively evoking nightfall — and intensifying our awareness that we were in a room full of strangers.
But July was generally more intent on orchestrating sequences designed to knock down barriers. An onstage yoga class, led by a spectator, attracted dozens of eager participants. In one touching tableau vivant, a group of couples split apart and circled the stage, eyeballing other prospective mates, before finally settling into the embrace of their original partner.
July often seemed as content to watch as to speak, but she had no hesitation about asserting her authority when it came to assigning tasks, as I discovered when she called my seat number and asked that its occupant stand up. (The ICA spokesperson said that she chose that seat solely because there was a bit of light on it). I dutifully got to my feet, whereupon July informed me that my job within New Society was to work as a . . . prostitute. Heavy are the burdens of citizenship, is all I’ve got to say.