I went into Holcombe Waller’s recent performance at On the Boards knowing very little about his work—only that he is described as a modern troubadour. This label is remarkably apt, as he and his collaborators fuse musical performance with dramatic movement and clever stagecraft. There is an arc to the performance, but no narrative, and he commands attention throughout with his sonorous, androgynous, sometimes unearthly voice. His lyricism is more troubadour than singer-songwriter and the use of projection, electronic instruments and distortion all make him distinctly modern, but perhaps the themes explored in his latest work Wayfinders make him particularly deserving of the distinction, as they span the ages.
As the title suggests, the central subject is navigation and sensory exploration, expressed directly through the music and the intervening monologues, as Waller plays a digital demiurge, a self-aware force tasked with initiating and operating a virtual experience for “you”—the audience, some advanced human or even reality as we know it. This is not clarified, and though the finer point is about our species’ seemingly instinctive love of exploration, novel experience and virtuality, it allows for moments of tantalizing speculation. Rather than pointing to then cynically dismissing bourgeois fascinations with technology and augmented reality, Waller’s narrator slyly cuts to the heart, to the existential questions that make these obsessions so profound in the first place: the need for escape and distraction and the possibility embraced by so many world religions, that we are more sublime beings inhabiting a corporeal form—or, more recently proposed, we are all part of a simulation. In Waller’s narration it is not so much a fall from grace as a fully immersive amusement park ride, a different form of reality for “you.”
The line is blurred between the organic and the electronic (musically and thematically) as Waller’s narrator melancholically speaks of ships floating on the sea loaded with electronics, objects eventually cast into the sea, and our own origins in the sea, bodies run by electrical impulses, that also eventually return to the sea. The body itself becomes an electronic device, expanding the mysterious conceit of the show, that all of this reality is a simulation, but within we are still forming ourselves, still finding our way.
In observing this, the demiurge or superego or master operator—whatever you may call Waller’s narrator—is learning and discovering itself, about this desire to experience. It even seems to attempt intimacy with another operator, another part of the system…
And then it all comes to an abrupt and disappointing end—disappointing above all because I wanted to see more, but also because those closing moments were so stiff and abstruse compared to the transcendent first half. In a way, this could itself be a commentary: In seeking definitive answers, the lyrical becomes prosaic and suddenly the entire exercise for the sake of ineffable experience. I find this a charitable excuse, though. It ultimately feels hacked off.
But what a memorable ride it is to that point. The use of video and live camera effects and lighting was masterful and never became gimmicky, though one meandering monologue went on a bit long. It presented a believable stream of consciousness, not entirely without substance and possible even for a godlike mind such as Waller was portraying. But when the rest of the content was tighter and more succinct, this monologue felt like unedited filler for the video effect occurring simultaneously: a back-and-forth pan guided by Waller around the musicians. The pan showed on the large central screen at back while the musicians remained stationary, bringing attention to the act of seeing and the perception of depth…very slowly. Had the accompanying words been more interesting it wouldn’t have felt so needlessly stretched, so close to the sudden end.
It is a good problem to have, I think, being told that the audience wants to see more overall. The material was ripe and could have been further explored and gone in unexpected directions, and I would like to see someone as lucid as Waller be the wayfinder for such explorations, but I would also rather a performance end before it outstays its welcome. I trust that Waller and his team knew better on this occasion. It was an unsatisfying close, but like life itself one just never knows when it will end…and for many of us it may seem to end just when it is getting really good. Such is experience in this material plane…simulation, cosmic drama, or otherwise.