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A CurtainUp Review
Take Care

"You're only twelve percent of the population—who cares?"
—My first line as Participant L

Take Care
Audience participants weather the storm (Photo: Bjorn Bolinder)
The Flea describes Take Care as a participatory investigation of "the ways we respond to present and imminent danger," responding to "our personal language around emergency preparedness, abandonment, and consolation." So, considering the show in its immediate context — staged as fear of terrorism reaches levels not seen since September 11, at a theater in the shadow of the World Trade Center, in a city still dealing with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy —it's somewhat surprising that its primary focus is actually racism, particularly as evident in the impacts of climate change, with a hurricane strike providing a loose narrative structure.

In other words, this is a Katrina show being presented to a Sandy audience — a potentially fruitful clash of assumptions and experiences, especially given the unfortunate reality that theater audiences tend to be disproportionately, overwhelmingly white. But while underscoring the connection between climate and race may be eye-opening, Take Care undercuts itself with a tendency to prioritize shocking audiences over empowering and educating them.

The first show directed by Niegel Smith since he became The Flea's Artistic Director earlier this year (and co-written by Smith and frequent collaborator Todd Shalom), Take Care is far from "traditional" theater, occupying territory that might be labeled as performance art or relational aesthetics.

The show is deeply reliant on audience participation: the play contains fifteen roles for audience members, who may elect to participate at the "featured" or "group" levels (I chose the latter). Featured performers are given more tasks and occasionally perform solo; "performing" might entail a scripted interaction with a cast member, or some sort of physical activity. A "voyeur" option is available for a more hands-off experience, but even voyeurs participate on a very reduced level.

You choose your level of participation without knowing what it will require, but once you make a choice, you're given a pamphlet of instructions detailing your role. These instructions are highly specific — the entire show is impressively choreographed down to the second, marked by timers on screens around the theater — and participants are enthusiastically supported by the cast, occasionally referred to as caretakers in the script (or "Score for Participatory Performance").

All the caretakers are members of the Bats, The Flea's resident acting company, who are not only more-than-capable performers but also unceasingly earnest. Unfazed by the show's manic pacing, the actors maintain a focused intensity throughout and balance more improvisational moments with scripted ones so that it's hard to tell which are which.

The performers possess a warmth that contrasts with the brutal core of the play, which is filled with moments calculated to create physical and emotional discomfort. Without giving too much away, I'll say that audience participants are, among other things, instructed to say or do racist things (one of my instructions required reciting an epithet-filled punch line of a racist joke) and squirted with water and "blood" (don't worry, you're given a poncho first).

The video screens, in addition to keeping time, also play clips that discomfit in a variety of ways. One of the first videos when you enter the theater appears to be stock footage of chicks in a factory, scrunched on overcrowded shelves and moving on conveyor belts; it's unclear what exactly we're watching, but it gestures towards animal cruelty and fills you with an inescapable sense that something horrible is about to happen.

Discomfort isn't a problem in and of itself — in fact, I respect how this show resists the push towards safe spaces where uncomfortable content is assiduously censored — but some of the images and moments that create this discomfort feel gratuitous, overwrought, or deployed for shock value. The messages weren't always clear, and even when they were, they could feel very heavy-handed. This risks stifling the conversation the show ostensibly wants to start.

My bigger concern leaving the show, though, was that I hadn't been empowered in any way to do anything about the problems that Take Care forcefully calls attention to. The show takes its audience to task for realities that are grim, urgent, and largely neglected; to not use that moment to offer any sort of path forward feels like a letdown and a missed opportunity. We emerge having weathered the storm, but the fear remains that we're not any better prepared for the next one.

Take Care by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith
Directed by Niegel Smith
Cast: Tommy Bernardi, Maki Borden, Rachel Lin, Ashton Muñiz, Derek Christopher Murphy, Rebeca Rad, Brittane Rowe, Isabella Sazak, Ryan Stinnett, and Catherine Woodard
Scenic Design: Daniel Soule
Lighting and Video Design: Amith Chandrashaker
Costume Design: Claudia Brown
Sound Design: Miles Polaski
Choreographer: Ethan Hardy
Prop Master: Hye Young Chyun and Cristina Pitter
Dramaturg: Taylor Edelhart
Assistant Director: Lilleth Glimcher
Production Stage Manager: Keith Paul Medelis
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street (between Church and Broadway)
Tickets: $15-$35, with lowest price tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis;, 212-352-3101
From 12/1/2015; opened 12/6/2015; closing 1/25/2016
Performance times: Thursday–Monday at 9 pm, with no performances on December 17 or December 1–January 7
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 12/10/2015 performance
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