The lives behind objects

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(This review contains some spoilers.)

The Canadian art historian and artist Alison Kobayashi has a knack for detective stories. Her recovery of the events and people behind a wire recorder and two spools found on it is remarkable. The research itself is a competent work of a trained art historian, in search of the context in which the owner, David Newburge, provides interesting insights into the daily life of a conservative Jewish family in the early 1950s. The wire recorder itself is the window into that world, but the almost inaudible conversations he recorded in 1952 in a family reunion with their next door neighbors, and 1954, on a Thanksgiving event at his parents apartment in Manhattan, open the door to an enormous amount of detail about the culture and habit of his family.

The show, Say something Bunny!, is the work of an artist in search of ways to express her finding in a novel language mixing theater, lecture and collective reading of the 90-page long transcript of the recordings. The results are ambiguous from the perspective of an audience who may arrive at the small venue in Chelsea (415 E 20th street) expecting a theatrical monologue of some sort. From the perspective of those in search of innovation, it is a hit. Creative, dense, and intelligent.

I spent a good deal of my life as a historian of political thought trying to understand how Jesuit missionaries sent to Brazil in the 16th century carried on their lives in the New World, and how they engaged with the native Americans in their efforts to convert them to Christianity. My sources were letters the fathers had to send their superiors in Europe at least once every week. Trying to unveil the daily life of those Jesuits was a task I was barely prepared to carry on. I had none of the talents for discovery Alison Kobayashi’s research reveals, nor the talents for presenting them to the public. In my work, paleography, i.e., dechipering the handwriting of those men of the Renaissance, was the first and utmost skill to acquire. In Ms. Kobayashi’s case, understanding almost inaudible dialogues and identifying voices on a wire recording was her challenge. After that, it was, for me and for her, all about interpretation.

My interpretation of those brothers of the Society of Jesus in the early days of their religious order, was all about the new interpretation of Christianity they utilized to convert the Indians. In Alison Kobayashi’s interpretation of the recordings, it is her perception of how the young David Newburge, leaving for college, coming from a conservative Jewish family, would end up becoming a songwriter, producer, in the Broadway showbiz of erotica and pornography in the 1970s.

The cultural signifiers of the period of the recordings are extremely relevant to her in this regard. David’s family is immersed into the radio and Broadway culture of the time. References to very contemporary shows and artists are abundant. Yiddish humor is also part of the plot. Finally, a world of commerce, ropes, beads, and women clothes are the crafts around which his family produced its living. They dream of a marriage for David in which he ends up in a beautiful estate in Westchester. David is going to Cornell. Their neighbors in the first recording in Long Island, the Tennenbaums, are moving to Philadelphia. His brother wants to be a sports announcer on the radio.

The performance itself is uneven. Its hybrid genre, part lecture, part script reading, part play, is successful at some junctures but at others it seems to be a collage in which comic enacting, serious historical commentary and detective plots do not integrate very well. But then, if one of them were to prevail over the others, the whole performance might have become shallow in its dominant genre. There is a sense of fragmentation in display which helps the overall integrity of the show and which is loyal to the narrative uncovered by the recordings. There is not enough material for Ms. Kobayashi to make more overarching historical conclusion or a more stable theatrical narrative. Many of here previous works are short videos dealing with similar material, found objects. Dan Carter, a short video based on a answering machine’s recordings found in a second hand shop seems timed to perfection in this regard. Say something Bunny! is over two hours long. At times, Ms. Kobayashi detail oriented approach engulfs her in side stories that add little historical info or drama to her show.

Often, less is better than more. This seems to be the case with Say something Bunny! It was the case with the book that came out of my encounter with the 16th century Jesuit letters. Daily encounters are often just that, routine events lacking overarching meanings even in historical perspective. Petsy and Peppa, for instance, a dog and a parakeet on the recordings, are just that. Noises from animals dettached from the dialogues.

Finally, David Newburge’s future life on Broadway make his past a curious crate to open. From conservative Jew adolescent to artist obsessed with X-rated art. Ms. Kobayashi’s take on passages of his plays and songs unveil many interesting aspects of this transition, but the recording themselves speak little about it. At the end, Say something Bunny! is more about him then about the recordings, even if they prove to be a very rich resource for the kind of artistic-historical-investigative inquiry Alison Kobayashi set out to do. The experience, in my opinion, is worth every dollar.

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