Abacus, the performance piece sprung from the minds of Lars Jan and his collaborators that work under the moniker Early Morning Opera, returned to REDCAT on Thursday. The piece was last seen here in an earlier working version during RECAT’s always fascinating NOW festival in 2009 and has been developed in a number of different locales since including a well-received outing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival just last week. The hour-long show’s content is essentially unchanged. A male speaker, who is billed as Paul Abacus but is really actor Sonny Valicenti, delivers a monologue/lecture crammed with ideas borrowed from any number of sources including the likes of Carl Sagan and Buckminster Fuller. Some of the ideas are credited, others not and they slowly pile up one on top of another in a heady mix of information that the group describes as something between a sermon and a TED talk. The overall points aren't always spelled out and themes are picked up and dropped unpredictably at times more like music or poetry than didactic speech. Behind Abacus is a giant screen filled with digital images generated in real time mixed with live video footage of the speaker himself caught by two cameramen. The two videographers are actually dancers harnessed to steadicams who pose and twirl while capturing the images use in the projected material.
The show is not narrative in any way, and is just as much about the seductive, and possibly dangerous, beauty in the visual design of data as it is the content of the work’s text. And it is those visual elements that really anchor the performance overall. They are striking and more complex than they seem in that they are generated on the spot and not simply prerecorded animation that is cued up to the text. The lecture being given by Abacus veers from inspirational to disturbingly dogmatic in its ersatz progressive philosophy. The show is often enticing and does score its points about the banality of ideas and their commodification with a good deal of subtlety. It does risk being a bit too subtle at times: there is clearly some ambivalence toward the value of the progressive ideas about environmentalism and correcting societal ills that fill the suave, persuasive Abacus' talk. But something is always just a little bit off, reminding the audience that the show is still on another level a put on like the panda briefly caught on video following Abacus as he walks back onto the stage. It’s never completely clear if the presentation is intended as a badly needed parody of the intellectual bankruptcy of the whole TED conference paradigm, a critique of the development of fascist ideology, or something less intellectually rigorous. The show does produce laughs, but the ambivalence towards the material leaves viewers on their own to make a decision about Abacus’s greater purpose. This is a good thing, but not always a comforting one to be sure. It's visual sense is hard to resist, though. The show repeats on Saturday at REDCAT downtown.