Cube Farm: ‘as you are now so once were we’

As You Are Now So Once Were We. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Any parent of small children knows you can have more fun with a cardboard box than the most expensive toys, but The Company takes the concept beyond any three-year-old’s wildest imaginings.

In As you are now so once were we, the Dublin theater company, under the direction of Chilean transplant José Miguel Jiménez, conjures intimate rooms and vibrant urban street scenes through the intricate manipulation of a hundred or so cardboard shipping boxes. Brian Bennett, Nyree Yergainharsian, Ron McDermott and Tanya Wilson constantly move those boxes about the stage, singly and in teetering towers, with such speed and apparent thoughtlessness as to appear random.

Los Angeles audiences have seen this concept before, on a much larger scale, in Nancy Keystone’s Apollo [Part 1] at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2005. But while that project, with its 16-foot wall of filing boxes, won on awe, As you are now… triumphs with ingenuity. This is apparent from the top of the show: after a frantic flurry of box-pushing, Yergainharsian, standing center stage, begins to recount her morning routine, while Brian and Tanya hold a cardboard-box bed behind her, as if we were seeing her from above.

In keeping with the current fashion for theater artists working in the “devised” genre, The Company use their own first names onstage. When Nyree  says, “I used to sit up,” they drop the “bed” to her waist. When she opens her bedroom door with a wave of her arm, a tower of boxes slides away. When she runs downstairs to breakfast, they make a stack of cardboard sheets appear to fly up and away behind her, in a fleeting impression of stairs rushing by.

And so it goes throughout the show, as the performers’ narration summons brown-cube furniture and buildings around them. Minecraft players will see nothing to shout about here, but for the rest of us, it is magical.

Jiménez contends that As you are now… began as an attempt to stage Ulysses. But apart from a few tossed-off allusions, all the show has in common with Joyce’s opus is the artistic elevation of everyday life and a fascination with the problem of conveying movement through space in a limited fictional medium.

I suspect Jiménez’s interest lies mostly with the latter. Just about halfway through the show, as Tanya is giving the third account of the morning’s uneventful events, I realized that the configuration of boxes is the same as Nyree’s bedroom, but rotated by 90 degrees, and that Nyree and Tanya’s speeches occur simultaneously, in the same conceptual space at the same moment. The show does not quite make this revelation literal — the overlapping speeches would be unintelligible — but its effect on my mind was akin to watching the animation of a rotating hypercube that appears in every PBS documentary on mathematics.

The point of As you are now…, I think, is not to dazzle us with its moving parts but to explore the ways that each of us create our own narratives as we move through the world. Tanya, Rob, Nyree and Brian each experience the same events differently, and the literal truth — even of their dull morning routines — can only be seen in outline. Brian, the most endearing of the four very engaging characters, lives a fantasy, strutting with a grin through Dublin to Dennis Parker’s “Like an Eagle,” convinced that everyone likes his stupid jokes, imagining he blows away the ladies with his well-muscled back. I found him delightful, then repulsive, then deflated as the perspective rotated and Tanya’s darker version took over. In essence, As you are now… is Rashomon — in 3-D.

As you are now so once were we. RADAR L.A. Thursday-Sunday, June 16-19 at Los Angeles Theatre Center. 213-237-2800.

Ben Waterhouse

I am the Assistant Arts and Culture Editor, Special Sections Editor and lead theater critic for Willamette Week, Portland's alternative newsweekly.

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