Presented in an actual lecture auditorium, The Softening of MAO-A has the potential to use all the psychological baggage infused in those stiff, wooden fold-up chairs to its advantage. Unfortunately, the piece seems to have been built for a theatre and is unwilling, or unable, to take full advantage of its actual playing space. With theatrical mood lighting and a performer delivering the story through a headset microphone in the very intimate room, the confluence of media and space is confusing and lessens the power of each.
MAO-A is a gene that inhibits the proclivity toward violence evident in humans and, apparently, Macaque monkeys. The company Darwin Futures is trying to develop methods – starting with, generically, ‘art’ – to increase production of MAO-A in the brain and thus bring about world peace. All this information is delivered in a dramatic, TED-talk style bravado by the sole actor, who does not for one second read as an actual scientist. Not that we expect this piece to be ‘real’, of course, but it exists in an uncomfortable place between ‘real’ and ‘performed’. One might fall asleep during an academic lecture, but the professor is nonetheless trying to teach you something. An actor, when uninspiring, is simply trying to tell you something, which is how this piece comes across. The thesis of the piece, both as art and as pseudo-scientific lecture, is muddy. Moonlight in certain dusky paintings generates more MAO-A enzyme in the brain? Okay. So What? ‘Generate the perfect outside, and you make the perfect inside’? Perfect as defined by whom? And who says the end goal is ‘perfection’?
The first few moments of the piece were the most effective for me. Before I knew what I was getting into, walking into the creaky, vintage auditorium seats inspired me with a giddy expectation to really learn something – to have my mind somehow changed. With the strange, dim light the room felt magical in a way, and when the lyrical and somewhat eerie PowerPoint display began, the potential of the show was clear and potent. I feel I could have taken much more of the show’s ‘information’ in that format and would have been capable of filingl in the gaps with my own imagination thus making the piece active and personal for me. As it was, the self-conscious theatricality of the delivery kept the show as a whole just out of the audience’s reach.