Black Wizard/Blue Wizard at the Incubator Arts Project is a delightful take on contemporary ennui and the search for meaning in a post-recession, celebrity-conflict-obsessed culture. Equal parts Tolkien, MTV game show, Ziggy Stardust, and John Hughes movie, the piece is presented by our two referees (the generous and hilarious Nikki Calonge and Mikeah Ernest Jennings) as a necessary battle between the titular wizards in order to save the universe from “The Great Mediocrity” (which is always accompanied by the “so-so” hand gesture). Why these two need to fight and how that produces our saving grace is never addressed, nor does it really matter. What does matter is that the contest seems to have been dreamed up by the performers less to prevent the audience from The Great Mediocrity than themselves—and I mean that in a good way.
The text and music, by Eliza Bent and Dave Malloy (who are also our wizards), are shape-shifting satires of genre: the characters are never in the place they want to be, never satisfied with the relationships in and with space and time, their genre of the moment peters out as quickly as it is presented. When the wizard challenge is to fight in the (U.S.) Civil War, they merely play cards; when they are presented with the “Bus Stop” challenge, they cannot simply wait for the bus by discussing the weather or staring into space—they must make literary allusions and outdo one another with pizzazz. When the wizards simply refuse to cooperate, our other-worldly, bombastic referee becomes “Nikki” and storms off in frustration, explaining that she agreed to work a double just so the four could work together. The performance refuses to stand still, moving from an intergalactic contest to a slice of life drama essentially about quarter-life crises, to a Brechtian dance party, to a love story. The abstraction of worlds makes it unclear as to whether the performers are Dunkin Donuts employees who have created this fantasy world to keep themselves happy, sane, and/or distracted, or if they exist in a string-theory ruled universe of infinite power and banality, or if this is all a literary gesture to the corollaries among these worlds. The movement of the piece helped by a Greek chorus of varyingly engaged astronaut-esque backup singers and dancers adds to the welcomed confusion.
This sense of defiance is served well by the direction of Dan Safer, whose wonderful experiments are infamous for their indeterminate structures, game-like challenges, and playful, but precise movement. What makes Black Wizard/Blue Wizard distinct is that, while the contest is presented as randomized (the referee plunges her hands into a bowl full of dice and coins, sometimes asking an audience member to toss a coin of Hanukah gelt), I can say with 99% confidence that this is for metaphorical purposes in this piece, and does not actually change or affect the outcome of the performance in any way. To very purposefully gesture to indeterminacy and then immediately quash it seems delimiting and defeating, not necessarily in a good way. Much like our wizard-donut slingers, I want my experiences to be rife with possibility and danger; to remove that from Black Wizard/Blue Wizard doesn’t reinforce the power of The Great Mediocrity, but rather tames the performance. Wizards everywhere have just got to free.