Shining light of comedy on our dark tragedies

Pat Sisson Column

One of the enduring images of the World Trade Center attacks was the home video footage of a wave of dust engulfing an unlucky, camcorder-wielding New Yorker. As the weeks went on, it seems like art also had its vision clouded by dust.

Some things are sacred, and the attacks proved it. The nation needed a chance to heal, so the conventional wisdom goes, and this wasn’t the time for cheap laughs or potentially offensive humor. It was time for fund-raising concerts, memorial services and somber self-reflection.

At least, that was what I thought until I saw a performance of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” this weekend. The one-hour show is a mix of 30 short plays, ranging from comedy to serious monologues. What grabbed me was the way that they made fun of recent events. One play invited audience members to come up on stage and finger paint, and then a voice over the speakers said that as a precaution, the theater will now begin to finger print all audience members in case they are terrorists.

Another aspect of the performance that got my attention, other then the funny material, was the rate at which the actors, part of a troupe called the Neo-Futurists, introduced new plays: from two to 12 each week. (It depends on a dice roll — they’re really into randomness.) When I saw them, they were performing material not from a month ago, but from last week.

The artistic director, Greg Allen, told me that the group tries to be a “living newspaper.” Because some of the ensemble members were in New York and saw the towers crash (another Neo-Futurist group is there), they translated the emotion of the event into art almost immediately.

The group has no sacred cows (Allen said they only cancel a play if an actor is personally affected by a play he or she wrote). Shows from the last few months have mocked President Bush’s counter-terrorism proposals, anthrax and the anti-Arab feelings in the country.

“The bottom line is truth,” Allen said. (The audience loved the show enough to wait in line from 9:30 p.m. until the doors opened at 11 p.m., so the other bottom line was just fine.)

Daniel Cress, the business director of the Neo-Futurists, said, “Right after the attacks, the only shows performed were fund-raisers. Everything else seemed disrespectful.” That is, except for “Too Much Light.” Cress said that their show was “dominated” by material reflecting the attack, taking up most of the show for a few weeks.

Why does this matter? Not many artists were willing, for obvious reasons, to try and put a funny face on the most tragic event in recent American history. That would be pushing the bounds of good taste. And while “Too Much Light” wasn’t exactly “Showtime at the Apollo” the weekend after the terrorist attacks, it did provide some perspective.

They took advantage of the way art allows people to look at an event in a different manner and gave the audience a new way of looking at the event that had been on their mind the whole week. Tragedy should be the inspiration, not the censor, of great art. As Allen said, “People want that visceral connection of life on stage.”

“Too Much Light” gave the audience just that.