A glossary of purple: 1) Purple Protest. Anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa thronged before a water cannon spraying water dyed purple. Stained for arrest but emboldened, they chanted, “The purple shall govern.” 2) Purple Prose. An insult Horace coined to mock the treatment of language as stuff, both sense and sensuousness. 3) Electric Purple. Psychedelia’s purple, of Deep Purple, Hendrix’s Purple Haze and Prince’s Purple Rain, of LSD as narcotechnology, of a countercultural history that seesaws between the French Revolution and the New Age movement, the Culture Industry and Silicon Valley. What should we do with this aging body of knowledge? Pumice the heel. See what collects in the tub.
Asher Hartman’s rambunctious theater piece Purple Electric Play! (PEP!), 2014, bounces between these thematic purples of protest, prose and psychedelics. It premiered this fall in Machine Project’s basement auditorium, which boasts a portico and a palette of red and gold; styled like a Victorian miniature, the theater seats just 17. If PEP! has a structure, it’s that of a pendulum careening between dramatic monologues and vaudeville numbers. The players are avatars in velvet onesies. They embody heroes ranging from Susan Boyle of Britain’s Got Talent to French revolutionary Charlotte Corday, deliver cheek (“Being is terminal”) and produce experiences with inordinate panache in the general genre of “What the fuck?” Corday delights in venturing a toe beyond the reach of her umbrella, until the rain transmutes into a mob, kidnapping her for execution. A man in a gimp suit draws the proscenium’s red curtains around his face, turning the stage into a vagina from which the gimp head crowns. Three players sing, “Hurrah! The stork is here!” in an eerie, earwormy round, and a character designated The Audience appears, blathering like a baby. The play’s first line is, “I’m sorry.” And perhaps Hartman should be, depositing the dead skin of revolutionary rhetoric onto another corpse—the theater—peppering good lines with terrible French accents, and smearing the rage of abolitionism into contemporary creative-class disaffection. And perhaps I should be, too, because je l’adore.
Of course, with “Play” in its title, PEP! is about the mechanisms of stage plays, but it’s also about the way play of any kind muddles the real and the fake. Realness isn’t an objective state, but an orientation. In PEP!, history is its own breed of theater: revolution is a performance that veers toward cliché, and only the rare individual believes her lines. What possible good is a show that plays with revolution and gets performed for as many people in front of the stage as on it? It’s the players’ eager virtuosity, which I insist is not for nothing, that reinserts in the haggard form of history an absurd, electric kind of joy.
Shall the purple govern? As it turns out, the color purple might stand in for what aesthetics has to do with anything, not just politics. Purple tags disobedients just as much as it galvanizes resistance. It names a style whose viscosity can blot out, bring up, or even be meaning. It can anesthetize or trip out. At one point in PEP!, a phantasmagoria of consumer goods appears: a pizza box, Pampers, Kleenex, a Big Gulp. I’m never sure what anyone means when they refer to a place and idea called “the theater,” but I would hazard its definition on the banal little magic of that Big Gulp protruding from the darkness as if by the hand of god.