THE COACH OF A SPORTS TEAM (Tim Stapleton) sits behind a table at a press conference, tired but trying, explaining his team's failures in the previous season. But it isn't long before his discussion of failure turns to his own life, aging and alone with his moustache and cigarettes.
So begins Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab's production of Will Eno's Oh the Humanity, a five-scene exercise in struggling to find meaning amid loneliness and confusion and death. (But funny!)
In another scene, a spokeswoman for an airline (Hadley Boyd) tries to comfort the families of travelers killed in a plane crash—she helplessly wonders if maybe it wasn't so bad, if maybe we aren't all hurtling toward death ourselves, never knowing when we'll hit the ground. This sentiment, metaphysically pretty banal, is given unexpected heft by the format in which it's delivered: She speaks directly to the audience, implicating us in her earnest discomfort.
Later, a photographer and his assistant set out to reproduce a photo of soldiers taken during the Spanish American War. The photographer (Matthew DiBiasio) turns his camera on the audience, the ostensible subjects of the re-creation. Our passive participation once again provides an emotional shortcut to the material; in this case, the weight of history anchors the present, begging the question of why we're happy to scrutinize an old photograph, searching for clues about moments past, but often can't even spare a glance for a real live face.
For a show that barely clocks in at an hour, it has impressive emotional heft—Eno's writing has a cumulative build, systematically knocking out the audience's defenses over the five-part show. The Performance Lab does an outstanding job with the script, not least because the casting here is just about note-perfect—without actors willing to leaven the script's self-seriousness with humor, the show could easily feel like an acting-class workshop. Through this performance, though, runs an assuredness that bespeaks the understanding that oblique approaches like humor and self-consciousness are often more impactful than direct emotional appeals.
Like the sudden death of a loved one or an accident narrowly averted, Oh the Humanity left me more acutely aware that I'm alive. You can't ask much more from art than that.