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Glum Blue Glow: Two Shows Where Screens Take Center Stage But Leave Audience Batteries Low 

Tuesday, Jul 29 2014
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The lead-up to Speechless suggests the show will skewer one of the great workplace traditions of our time: the PowerPoint presentation. "There are 350 PowerPoint presentations given every second around the world. But none quite like this," reads the promotional material. Upon entering Public Works, audience members get lanyards with nametags featuring a mock Venn diagram-qua-corporate logo and job titles like "HR Nightmare" or "Weird Intern." Playing on loop before the show starts is, naturally, a PowerPoint presentation, with all the program's classic, very limited animation options on flamboyant display. One slide theorizes about the first PowerPoint presentation in history, suggesting that humankind's struggle against pointless meetings and presentations is longer and more futile than we knew. The event feels as if, instead of having a bar next to the stage, there should be a folding table with stale chain store bagels, coagulating cream cheese, and coffee in a cardboard box.

What follows that promising setup, however, has disappointingly little to do with satirizing the absurdities of corporate culture. Speechless is an improv contest in which competitors must give coherent presentations on slides they haven't previously seen. The publicly sourced slides include (no surprise) the sexual — male astronauts posing heroically under the text "Rocket to Uranus" — as well as what could pass for actual bad PowerPoint slides — charts written in Comic Sans MS — and even the surreal. The show's best moments are captured in its title: when, at a loss for words, contestants must plumb the depths of their free association skills to connect, say, the assigned topic of an infomercial about invisible pillows to a photo of Brazilian favelas.

Unfortunately, the deck feels stacked against the performers. Some contestants are experienced improvisers; others are drawn from the drunkest, douchiest, and thus most likely to volunteer and least likely to be funny quadrants of the crowd. The host, Sammy Wegent, can be graceless, relying too heavily on "that's weird" as his punchline, and unable to find the right balance of teasing participants while also encouraging them.

Speechless is also performed as corporate training, and it's easy to see why the format would work better in that environment, where contestants get some training in the incredibly difficult skill of improv, and the audience knows the presenters. But as a public event, it's an all too-stark reflection of the growing class divide in our city. Speechless targets audiences who are privileged enough to work in white-collar jobs, and, because it celebrates rather than lambastes presentation-giving, the event has an unsettling self-congratulatory feel, as if all those jokey nametags granted audience members nightlife protection from the world outside their workplace bubbles.

A screen — or more precisely, three of them — also loom large in Amy Munz's performance art piece Patterns, a collage-like show, directed by Henry Godinez, delving into the deeply felt emotions of disparate characters. The 23-year-old artist-in-residence at San Francisco's French American International School performs live in the middle of three different but interconnected videos. Often they simultaneously depict the same subject or scene from different angles; at other times the images are linked more by association, meant to give a moment a fuller, or more fractured, mood.

Munz has a knack for capturing unusual textures on film: the puckered skin of a plucked chicken, all its feather follicles like pinpricks; glistening, juicy bubbles of paint on wriggling fingers. You can never see the three screens and Munz's live performance all at once, which aptly captures the ephemerality of feeling and memory but requires much neck-whirling.

Trying to put these puzzle pieces together rewards only intermittently. Munz's show almost feels like it was meant to be private, so few points of entry does she offer her audience: text is oblique, shifts in perspective unclear. Munz is evidently a skilled physical performer — embodying one character, Abigail, she seems to transform her jaw into a massive under-bite and slobber every word through great reservoirs of saliva — but she deploys those skills unevenly. Other characters are little differentiated; it's often difficult to tell if Munz is playing a version of herself or if she's supposed to be in character.

Munz's carefully calibrated videos and intricate text suggest great care and deep thought. Left uncommunicated, though, her ideas might as well have been in another language.

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Lily Janiak

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