Those red and white concentric circles. You know them: three small becoming one larger, immaculately proportioned and perfectly centered. Since 1968, the circle’s ubiquitous presence has spread from advertising circulars to canine mascots to race cars, impassively branding all it touches. That’s its job, after all – that neat and orderly image forms one of the most immediately recognizable corporate logos anywhere in the world – that of the Target Corporation. But behind its placid and orderly façade lies an ominous symbolism more disconcerting than negotiating the company’s Lullaby Club baby gift registry or even the interest charges on its corn-based, bioplastic Guest Card: the logo is a bullseye. And bullseyes signify… yes, a target, but a specifically-marked target for which some sort of violent, destructive demise is the intended end for whatever is behind it. So the key question here becomes less, “Why a bullseye as a corporate logo?” and more, “Which side of the bullseye are we on?”
To Sponsored by Nobody, Brooklyn’s effervescently inventive young theater company, the title of its latest work states its position relative to prey and predator. Behind the Bullseye: A Chamber Play for the American Consumer argues that we are definitely in the sights of something big and bad, and it’s not just the big-box corporate behemoth. It’s worse. Much worse. Bullseye deconstructs the voraciously wasteful and exploitative culture of American consumerism in a way that makes utilitarian outlets like Target seem more a symptom of the disease than the disease itself—a willing host, perhaps, but not the virus that devours and destroys. That virus is us.
The Target store at Atlantic and Flatbush in SBN Artistic Director Kevin Doyle’s Brooklyn neighborhood serves as inspiration for the group’s latest exploration of life as we now live it – globalized, advertised, product-driven consumerism in all its surreal, alienating absurdism. Realizing Target as both a magnet drawing disparate classes, cultures and races into its generic fluorescence while simultaneously a symptom of the gentrification process that repels certain classes, cultures and races, Doyle sensed the germ of a theater piece and began interviewing shoppers on their Target experiences. “The purpose of the interviews was originally to find people who may want to collaborate or even be in the piece,” Doyle remembers. “The goal was to have interview subjects appearing on camera, but not many people agreed to that. But most agreed to talk and that was helpful.”
From the interviews, Doyle & Co. fashioned individual characters with class- and culturally-dictated needs: a white woman who plans surgical shopping strikes during off-peak hours to acquire “clean” products “sealed within boxes inside packaging behind plastic”; a Hispanic woman drawn to the air-conditioned insulation as respite from the heat and traffic of her 38th Street apartment; a black woman with kids in tow on an expedition from Crown Heights in pursuit of volume discounts on Tropicana and Kellogg’s and Hillshire Farms. If this is beginning to sound like the subject of Michael Moore’s next docu-exposé, thankfully it’s not. Though Bullseye may have documentary realism at its roots, ultimately it owes more to the scathing absurdism of Ionesco and Maxwell than to the manipulated “realism” of Moore. Doyle calls it “applied absurdism.” It is an approach that (d)evolves conversational text into chanted, repetitive mantras of conditioned need and want, that decodes seemingly quotidian employee dress requirements into a specific visual hierarchy of status and subordination, that allows an Assistant Store Manager to describe shooting “execution-style” fellow Team Members deemed not “fast, fun and friendly” enough in the same chipper cadence used to enthuse about how “Target prepares you for life.”
With its mashup of the mundane and the dreamlike, Bullseye aims for a target much larger and elusive than the easy takedown of corporate capitalist culture. Like its earlier, WMD (just the low points), SBN is looking to defibrillate American theater with the short, sharp shocks of the uncomfortably familiar, this time aiming at a culture beholden only to its own want/need/want/need/want desires while remaining willfully oblivious to the plundering swath this inflicts upon a world beyond the Suave-shampoo-plus-conditioner-with-an-extra-20%-free and the frozen Red Baron pizzas. Unlike today’s music and art, Doyle believes contemporary theater in America has “lost its sense of the immediate, its sense of relevance.” Because theater in the US is often considered a commodity and therefore of value only if it generates a profit, theater artists are forced to look elsewhere for funding and in the process have become too “wrapped up in grantspeak. It’s almost like we can’t deal with the dead-on in theater.”
Dead-on immediacy is what SBN hopes Bullseye will bring to the party this summer in downtown NYC theater, along with its trademark commitment towards affecting real social change, even if that means one audience at a time. “We think of social change in small steps, rather than in broad strokes,” Doyle says of SBN’s approach. The process of making theater “changes us, and changes the people we work with. Hopefully, the change we go through comes out in our performances and makes some impact upon our audience. And, hopefully, the change in us and in our audience changes what we all do on a daily basis.”
He pauses a moment, then laughs. “Is that too lame?”
Sponsored by Nobody’s Behind the Bullseye: A Chamber Play for the American Consumer will be presented as part of the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator series at the Ontological Theater at St. Mark’s Church, 131 E. 10th Street at 2nd Ave., Manhattan.. Performances July 1-3, 5 & 8-11 at 8pm. Additional late night performance on July 11 at 10:30pm. Tickets: $17 adult/$12 student, at www.ontological.com or TheaterMania: 212.352.3101.
Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.