No-brainer

A cheerfully quirky but cool Hot Lobotomy delivers at CounterPULSE
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REVIEW The title of David Szlasa's peculiar, compact, and appealing new work suggests one ready avenue of flight from a world gone mad, but in fact fantasies of escape take more than one form in My Hot Lobotomy, now up at CounterPULSE. And while escapism is exactly what the piece concerns itself with, the import is anything but apathetic or disengaged. A cheerfully quirky, Beckett-like duet wrapped in luxurious silences, snatches of recorded dialogue, short blasts of song and free-style dance, and a dreamy videoscape of environmental disintegration, My Hot Lobotomy is full of restive thought.

Like Szlasa's installation-performance work on the atomic bomb, 2004's GADGET, My Hot Lobotomy pokes at that psychic terrain joining the human capacity for denial with man-made catastrophe. In this case, the catastrophe is the rapid warming of the planet, which remains stubbornly just beyond the necessary concerted and rational response. But Lobotomy's approach is both more traditional and more oblique than the environmental strategy employed in GADGET, which had audiences wandering around a noisy club-like atmosphere enveloped by video projections and spotted with localized audio segments.

Quietly trained on the internal and external minutiae of its main character — a mute and semi-vegetative post-op named Joey (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) — the play never feels crudely weighty or political, let alone like a piece of agitprop. Instead, it unfolds like a loopy, semi-looping trance, a restless and sardonic ditty, or a closet poem stashed away in Pee-wee's Playhouse. Lobotomy's low-key faux naiveté bristling with caged energies and subversive instincts — much as Joey's shiny turquoise sneaks, popping out from under a bland ensemble of sports coat and chinos, hints at dormant life beneath a numbed surface.

The play acts to slow us down almost immediately — almost as much as Joey, who does nothing for the first several minutes but stare back at us blankly from a chair in the center of the stage. This mirror effect, uncomfortably amusing, grows in significance when we learn that Joey — in shades of the Ramones — has given himself a homemade lobotomy. Well, you might ask, who hasn't? Szlasa gives us plenty of space to ponder the question, gradually unfolding the method and motive behind Joey's condition as we share in the meditative, vaguely bemused mood he projects.

It's a knock at the door that disturbs this waking slumber. A guy (Spencer Evans) enters delivering a pizza, a slice of which Joey chews with silent satisfaction. The man then returns with a boombox and a cassette tape, careful to demonstrate to Joey how they go together. On the tape, Joey speaks to himself with prerecorded words of instruction, clarification, and encouragement. The delivery guy, we learn, has been paid in advance to bring all Joey will need in his new, streamlined life. Returning to the stage with a guitar, he also delivers something to the audience, at odd moments and even odd angles: a series of witty songs — variously contributed by Carrie Baum, Cody James Bentley, Sean Hayes, and Joshua Lowe — telling the story of Joey in terms that slyly critique what they describe.

The limited world Joey has structured for his new self — with its prerecorded, too certain insistence that everything is "gonna be really, really great" — eventually unravels among a clutter of pizza boxes and, more alarmingly, a series of fraught dreams, as the unstructured world outside, which appears as a video montage of global warming over a gentle cloudscape at the back of the stage, slips in with growing insistence. The increasing dissonance provokes another transformation in Joey, and another attempt to scurry for cover. It's a rush of new life whose meaning may be ambiguous, but hardly empty-headed.

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