Police theater takes viewers inside the brutal life of an officer

As Seattle police face criticism for their tactics, "Newyorkland" provides a jarring, humanizing look into life on the force. 

Crosscut archive image.

The set of Temporary Distortion's Newyorkland.

As Seattle police face criticism for their tactics, "Newyorkland" provides a jarring, humanizing look into life on the force. 

It’s challenging to describe exactly what Newyorkland is, but its creators, the New York performance troupe Temporary Distortion, call it an “assemblage.” With its mix of box-like set, video projections, and live action, assemblage is as accurate a term as any to describe this searing exploration of the daily life of New York City cops.

The talents of the ten members of Temporary Distortion run the gamut from performance art to playwrighting to video, set and costume design. As in all their productions, in Newyorkland they pool their skills to create a compelling, self-contained world from which it’s impossible to avert one’s eyes.

The set — a huge video screen with cut out sections for live performers and a massive tangle of microphones, lights and cords — practically assaults us as we enter On the Boards’ mainstage theater. A pair of policemen on each side of the set casually stands guard, silently watching us as we take our seats. It’s an eerie feeling and, if we didn’t know that this production is about cops, it would be easy to mistake them for Seattle police, protecting a very expensive set.

At some point, a slow rumble starts and the “show” begins. Over the course of the next hour, through a combination of episodic live action and remarkably realistic documentary-like video sequences, we are pulled into the daily routine of these cops. They deal with everything from the mundane (writing down the details of a car that’s being pursued) to the near-fatal (a man threatening to shoot himself, a hostage, and the police) to the deeply unsettling (an hysterical woman babbling incoherently at the site of a brutal homicide).

At various points, the live actors step forward to glare menacingly at the audience, nearly blinding us with bright lights or pointing a gun in our direction, pulling us even more explicitly into their violence-filled universe. These are chilling reminders that sometimes it’s hard to know friend from enemy, innocent bystander from aggressive perpetrator.

The most powerful revelations come in the video sequences, which are shot documentary style, but in fact are staged. Some are set in a nondescript precinct office where we see a male prisoner try to break loose of his handcuffs and a female, possibly a prostitute, passively waiting to be questioned. But the most disturbing scenes feature haunting interviews with the “cops.”

It’s heartbreaking to hear one “officer” recount the change that takes place once he’s on the street. He laments that in the police academy he thinks that he’s going to protect people and help them, but “when you get out, you realize it’s really about regulating human behavior. And people resent us for that, so after a while you become cynical and hard, which is necessary to function.” His pained expression cuts through any stereotypes we may have about police brutality and reminds us that our men and women in blue take the “to serve and protect” slogan very seriously.

In another sequence, we see a cop on the narcotics beat chase a dealer before recounting to the camera how he has to have “street eyes.” “You can’t be looking at trees, you can’t be looking at clouds,” he explains. “And when a cop walks into a room he sees things you wouldn’t see and even if you saw them you wouldn’t know what they were.”

The cumulative effect of listening to these “cops” and seeing the danger and violence they endure is to understand at a visceral level the courage they must muster day after day. In a live action sequence at the very end, one policeman, his back to the audience, silently builds a memorial to slain officers, while a disembodied voice calls out the names of New York City neighborhoods. It’s a heartrending, fitting conclusion to an original and important evening of theater on a subject that many of us have probably never thought about in quite this way.

If you go: Newyorkland by Temporary Distortion, On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, through November 20. Tickets $25 and are available at the box office, by phone 206.217.9888, or online at www.ontheboards.org


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