Crunch Time | Counterpilot

It’s certainly very impressive.

The brainchild of Counterpilot director Nathan Sibthorpe, Crunch Time takes a few errant threads from the storm currently engulfing the world at large (e.g. democracy, factionalism, technology, reality TV, Instagram meals) and weaves them into a remarkably tight and polished experience. One with a hell of a hook.

It’s a dinner party with a celebrity chef. I had Todd MacDonald, Artistic Director & CEO of La Boite Theatre Company. But, there’s a twist. Before each course, the guests vote on the ingredients the chef will use to prepare the meals. And, the chef has between 15-25 minutes to prepare something. Which guests will pass judgement on via popular vote.

It could easily run off the rails. Wrong ingredients? Wrong chef? Wrong guests?Wrong technology? If even one of these elements isn’t managed correctly, you’ve got a disaster. And, it’s a testament to the work of Sibthorpe and his collaborators that such a possibility never seems likely. It’s a work that was conceived with a strong sense of practicality and has only gotten stronger with road testing.

In terms of execution, the only questionable component is the scripted dialogue from the chef. (Whom the audience interacts with via live streams – the two parties don’t meet in person until the very end of the show.) Everything about the work, for better or worse, is exceptionally polished but forcing the guest chef to trip over rather clunky writing feels both unnecessary and undeveloped.

But, it’s never just about technical execution, is it?

The question that tends to reverberate around the work is… so what?

It’s a nice trick. It’s even a fun night out. And, while there’s nothing wrong with that, those descriptions both apply to going to a movie. Or, simply having dinner at a nice restaurant with some friends. In the latter situation,you even have the benefit of nobody daring you to eat a dessert comprised of creamed corn and oreos.

But, does it offer something more than that?

I’m not entirely sure.

There’s an explicit attempt to link the democratic processes at play in the work’s conception with debates and developments happening around global politics. Sibthorpe’s notes reference Brexit and Trump. There’s a development within the work that explicitly plays with the idea of leadership spills. If there’s a moment that elevates CrunchTime above a good dinner party, it’s that one.

But, it doesn’t feel like enough.

This, admittedly, may be an unfortunate necessity for a work as complicated in its technological set-up as this one – but I suspect it runs a little deeper than that.

The work itself does feel like a refinement of several fascinations for Sibthorpe as an artist.

He’s always been fascinated by the frisson between the real and manufactured.The illusion of control. The myth of reality. In his Some Dumb Play, he set up a multiple-choice play and gradually eroded the system to reveal the desperate, meaningless chaos beneath. In a developmental work Sob Story, he explored (and interrogated) the fictional constructs that led to a crying audience.

In this context, Crunch Time is a very precise refinement of his fascination. There’s the controlled chaos of immediate democracy (voting on ingredients) and the thwarted predictability of what happens with the outcomes of that democracy (the meals). The work establishes a very clear structure of meaning. Then, it warps that structure. Breaks it, even.

The audience think they understand the system of control. They are mistaken.

But, they nevertheless have to continue using that system.

And, there’s a very tangible, accessible embodiment of their actions throughout.

(Namely, a dessert full of creamed corn.)

So, there’s clearly more than just a night of casual diversion. There’s substance and intent to the work. But, is there impact?

I don’t think so. Not enough, anyway. In his notes, Sibthorpe makes reference to applying the democratic system to a more neutral concept (eating a meal). But, this approach inevitably leads to a rather superficial, emotionless experience. And, because of that, there’s no real moment of transcendence to elevate the work beyond a pleasant diversion, unfortunately.

That might be enough for some audiences. Certainly, I can’t think of many audiences leaving Crunch Time feeling dissatisfied. As I said, it’s a fun night.

But, I can’t shake the feeling that the creators want it to be more than that.

(And, honestly, I think I do too.)

MJ O’Neill attended Crunch Time at Norman Price Theatre on Saturday 15th December 2018.

Key Creatives
Director | Nathan Sibthorpe

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