Hoarders, the horrifying A&E reality show about people who stuff their apartments with trinkets and pet waste and half-eaten food, is popular for a reason. Well, two reasons: First of all, you can't resist the spectacle of a cluttered existence turning into a full-blown pathological obsession. But secondly — and perhaps more importantly — the show is a hit because it makes the average person's garden-variety filthiness seem downright healthy by comparison. Thus it serves one of the primary purposes of reality television, easing us into a state of complacency by documenting a heightened version of our worst selves.
This Is All I Need, a new performance piece by the San Francisco troupe Mugwumpin, isn't so eager to let its audience off the hook. The show is a playful critique of the consumerist reflex. You may, for instance, think it's harmless fun to pick up a few pieces of scrap at a local garage sale, but that doesn't mean you have any rational basis for doing so. Given enough time and enough attic space, you might even begin to believe your stuff has meaning. Granted, you may not be lining your windowsills with 6-month-old cat feces, but you're still gripped by the urge to identify with things that couldn't possibly identify back.
Mugwumpin's show, developed by directors Liz Lisle and Jonathan Spector, is remarkable for many reasons, but its biggest accomplishment is to mock our worst habits without seeming like a scold. Production designer Rod Hipskind sets a playful tone from the start. He lines the back of the stage with row after row of packing boxes, each with a label indicating the essential uselessness of its contents. (They include "Audit," "Recipes," "Floppy Disks," "Destroy August 2010," "Sugar Packets," "Porn," and, of course, "Magic: The Gathering.") At center stage, Hipskind assembles a pile of stuff into an ungainly tower: a tasseled lamp, a tennis racket, bowling pins, trophies, a mannequin, a stuffed rooster, and other relics of yard sales past. Everything about the show's design, from Erik Pearson's soundscape to Jarrod Green's lighting, lends elegance and beauty to what is essentially a pile of junk. And that seems to be the point: We know that we're looking at crap, but we can't help but be seduced by it anyway.
Then the performers enter. Madeline H.D. Brown, Joe Estlack, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, and Christopher W. White begin dismantling the pile, exclaiming over the wonder and perfection of each ridiculous item. They relate anecdotes about their newly acquired stuff, telling us where they found it, what it means to them, and why they keep it around. "This defines me," they say. They share "hot facts" about their favorite albums. But the facts and anecdotes overlap. One person attempts to upstage another. The acquisitiveness becomes competitive, and as they try to differentiate themselves from the hoarding pack, the collectors make their interests more specialized and obscure. ("I've got a penchant for premodern musical instruments," one helpfully explains.) They even sing love songs to their knickknacks, including a hummable little number, "Tonight You Belong to Me."
White begins putting on T-shirts — one after another, layer upon layer — until he is cocooned and practically immobile. Meanwhile, Estlack strips down to a square-cut swimsuit. They cheerfully regard each other, the overdressed guy sizing up the underdressed guy. "I look good, I look good, I look good," they say in unison — one of the play's funnier observations on the narcissism behind collecting stuff you don't need. All four actors are excellent, but White's performance is so physically demanding that it's practically heroic; he spends enough time under the lights in dozens of items of clothing that he appears to be a candidate for heat stroke. (Equally heroic are the stage managers, Abra Kent and Katy Adcox, who somehow manage to keep track of more props than I've ever seen in a play.)
From time to time, the show's playfulness veers into preachiness, as when we're given sub-Yeatsian doom-and-gloom like "The list of necessaries gathers together, rises up, and takes hold." But more often than not, Lisle and Spector push things toward the absurdist end of the spectrum, finding the skewed humor in acquisitional obsession. A few of the vignettes — an apartment with disappearing and reappearing furniture, a woman caged in by strawberry baskets, a performer transformed into a walking pile of junk — would be right at home in an Ionesco play. Somehow, though, none of it feels derivative. The whole thing stays fresh because of the wit and energy of the staging, the fierce intensity of the performers, and the general refusal to wallow in self-righteous grandstanding.
Yet for all its self-awareness, This Is All I Need never quite acknowledges that, strictly speaking, theater itself is far from necessary. Most forms of pleasure — including most high-minded performance pieces — are pleasurable in large part because we could technically do without them. Even Marxist art doesn't escape the fact that art is, as Oscar Wilde correctly pointed out, quite useless. So maybe you don't need to see This Is All I Need in the same way that you need to take a leak. But I assure you that you want to see it. And despite what Mugwumpin might tell you to the contrary, sometimes wanting something is all the reason you need.