Ever since Shakespeare’s Puck and Prospero broke through the “fourth wall” to beg audiences to dismiss them from their onstage duties with applause (and arguably long before), the line between theater and real life has been fine and malleable. It’s also often fraught with baggage about the politics and culture of the day. The Vietnam War era was a boom time for entities that straddled the wiggly border between entertainment and sociopolitical commentary, honing their guerrilla theater skills at massive demonstrations on the National Mall and then taking them to more traditional performance venues. Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater is the most obvious case in point, but its offspring are legion, including Arm-of-the-Sea in our own neck of the woods.
Now the existence of the Internet and universally available cheap videomaking technology have taken political theater to a new level. If you’ve ever seen one of Improv Everywhere’s hilarious YouTube videos – in which someone gives the name Spartacus when placing a coffee order at Starbucks and a dozen people dressed as Roman legionaries charge in shouting “I am Spartacus!” when the order is ready, or hundreds of volunteers listening to instructions over earbuds line up in silent parades following random strangers on the streets of Manhattan – you know that this mischievous, subversive artform has finally gone viral.
Today’s funniest, most audacious enterprise in the realm of political-theater-on-electronic-steroids has to be the multinational cabal of satirists who call themselves the Yes Men. They have two movies of their exploits already out – The Yes Men in 2003 and The Yes Men Fix the World in 2009 – and now there is a third: The Yes Men Are Revolting, directed by Laura Nix, which opens on Friday, July 17, at Upstate Films Rhinebeck with a live appearance by Yes Man activist Mike Bonanno.
That’s actually the stage name by which Igor Vamos – an assistant professor of Media Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – is known when he’s participating in a Yes Men publicity stunt, along with his partner-in-prankishness Andy Bichlbaum, whose real name is Jacques Servin. The Yes Men’s modus operandi is to create very realistic-looking “official” websites, announce press conferences, then pose as spokesmen for some large corporate or governmental entity that has done grievous wrong to the world (think: the Bhopal disaster, Hurricane Katrina, Exxon and BP oil spills, the invasion of Iraq, global warming), apologize and offer reparations. Their performances are so convincing that the offender being spoofed is put in the embarrassing position of having to explain to the world that no such reparations are forthcoming. The Yes Men have also done things like hawk thousands of copies of pretend issues of major daily newspapers on the streets. They call these events “culture jamming,” and they sometimes end up getting arrested for their efforts, but high visibility and an enthusiastic following do seem to confer some degree of safety.
By all accounts the third Yes Men film delves more deeply than its predecessors into the real lives of Servin and Vamos and the strain that their commitment to outrageous political theater puts on them, their loved ones and their partnership, rather than just documenting their most recent stunts. (The good news is that the Occupy Movement put the spring back into their steps after a period of burnout.) Doubtless the question-and-answer session with Vamos on Friday evening will shed more light on the tribulations of a semi-professional provocateur – and maybe even inspire a few mid-Hudsonites to follow in his footsteps.
In any case, the trailer for The Yes Men Are Revolting promises an evening of hearty laughs for anyone with a less-than-reverential attitude toward big corporations and government bureaucracies. Check it out at 7 p.m. on July 17, or just see the movie at Upstate Films Rhinebeck through July 22. See the website at https://upstatefilms.org for showtimes.
The Yes Men Are Revolting featuring “Mike Bonanno,” Friday, July 17, 7 p.m., Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org.