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Reviewed by:
  • Measure Back by Christopher McElroen and T. Ryder Smith
  • David Bisaha
MEASURE BACK. By Christopher McElroen and T. Ryder Smith. Directed by Christopher McElroen. Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts, Baum Building, Pittsburgh. 22 October 2013.

What does it take to stop a war? Measure Back, a collaboration between director Christopher McElroen and writer/director/performer T. Ryder Smith, retells The Iliad in order to “measure back” to war’s origins. Like McElroen’s 2007 Waiting for Godot, performed and set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Measure Back engages a community of spectator-citizens with transhistorical ethical dilemmas. Drawing from previous experiments in storytelling, media integration, and audience participation, such as Living in Exile (2011), McElroen and Smith problematized tacit acceptance of violence by requiring audience members to act and speak before forty other spectator-citizens. While recent immersive work has fetishized the one-on-one interaction, Measure Back argues that politically meaningful interventions must occur in public.

The piece is a series of performative encounters and Homeric vignettes. As I entered, performer Dionne Audain gave me a brick and chalk: “Write [End Page 439] the name of someone you love.” I wrote my grandmother’s name and sat on a cinder block facing a low plywood stage. Crates, televisions, piles of rubble, power tools, and military costume pieces dotted the space, while possibilities of torture and destruction loomed: a baseball bat, a sledgehammer, a looped video of apocalyptic prophecy.

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T. Ryder Smith searches for a passage from The Iliad in Measure Back.

(Photo: Christopher McElroen.)

After introducing himself, Smith began narrating the epic, assigning audience members roles in the action: a veteran was dubbed “Zeus”; a young woman, “Aphrodite”; and we all became attendant Olympians. Athena cast off her cloak of war, Paris gave Aphrodite the apple, and the Trojan War began. No single story was told in its entirety; rather, Smith and McElroen invoked the myth as a generative structure for direct, individualized challenges to our understanding of ethics, obedience, and violence. Throughout, Smith posed pointed questions with a drill sergeant’s impatience and demanded that we take immediate, sometimes impossible action. If someone did not stand quickly or respond correctly, he pronounced them “dead.” I stood when requested, but then was told to cut off my own hair. When I hesitated, Smith “killed” me, along with two audience members to my left. “Ask them how they feel about that.”

Other encounters demanded that we judge fellow audience members. One man was instructed to give two pillows to the richest person in the audience. Later, Smith identified a couple and asked the man what it would take to start a war. He brought the man’s date onstage, blindfolded her, and asked the entire audience to imagine where they would hit her to make her “remember you forever.” The man, visibly shaken, agreed that he was now at war. Another young female audience member, “Iphigenia,” donned a veil downstage. Smith held up signs ranging from neutral (“girl”) to offensive (“bitch,” “meat”); we were to clap when he “crossed the line.” Uncomfortable, we obeyed.

Halfway through the production, the mood shifted from experimental to mimetic. With house lights dimmed, two actors emerged from shadows and the set became a foreign warzone, under attack from “Greek” forces with US accents. Audain retreated when Smith brandished a power drill. A third actor, Felicia Cooper, fearfully delivered a long monologue in Hebrew. She and Audain (billed “Briseis 1 and 2”) hid from Smith, who enlisted audience accomplices in further confrontations. One man was told to keep a flashlight trained on Cooper to prevent her escape; when she eluded him, the “captor” was brutally insulted. Another held a leash tight around Cooper’s neck. Tension peaked, yet we fulfilled our tasks—did we have any other option?

The climactic experiment replicated Paris’s choice: Audain challenged us to make a stand (literally) for [End Page 440] power, war, or love. At first, no one moved. Then I stood up for power and Audain brought me onstage. As I placed my brick on an altar, I turned to the audience, alone. In a powerful improvised...


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