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Surface tension in New York theatre

Christine Evans

Christine Evans is an Australian playwright and musician currently in the US as a visiting Fulbright scholar in the MFA (Playwriting) Program at Brown University.

In New York, to step out onto the street is to be immersed in a delirious river of speech. It seems (to this visitor, used to Australian reserve) that everything is on the surface. New York playwright Mac Wellman delights in this and draws the excess and rhythms of the American everyday into his work. He writes, “I believe, along with Beckett and Handke and Witkiewics, that the depth is on the surface. The inside is on the outside” (“Poisonous Tomatoes: A statement on Logic and the Theater”, The Bad Infinity: Eight Plays by Mac Wellman, John Hopkins University Press, 1994). Meanwhile half a world away in Australia, Keith Gallasch (“The Plight of the New”, RT#40, p26) expresses a hunger for theatrical experiences that offer “different surfaces, new rhythms, that induce reverie and contemplation...”; that trade a moribund theatre’s obsession with depth, character, plot, for an attention to the play of surfaces.

In New York, where hyperreality (in Umberto Eco’s sense) is the dominant mode, the experience of cultural surface without depth or centre is mediated by sheer speed: you’re moving too fast to sink.

There’s a similar energy, an incantatory quality to American speech, on the street and sometimes, hallelujah, even in the theatre, that strikes you with a physical force. The manifesto, the shout chorus, the sermon (Martin Luther King Day has just passed as I write) are embedded in the rhythms of the language, which is palpably shaped by the strong African-American presence in the culture. There is a vocal tradition here, black and white, that connects to an embodied musicality: Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, some of Williams and O’Neill, are animated by these cadences: African-American dramatist Suzan-Lori Parkes exhorts writers to dance around the room as they write; and to encounter her extraordinary The America Play is to hear the body in the words. Aishah Rahman talks of a “jazz writing” and in her play, Only in America, bird-woman Cassandra stammers a kind of rhythm-based gibberish for the entire first half of the play. A history of struggle writhes in this speech and unlike in Australia, where the cracks in the White-out of our history have only begun to open into public discourse (think of the stuttering, paper-shuffling and anguish around that one simple word, “sorry”) in the US the wound of a deeply divided and racist history is not so much pasted over into an uneasy silence as danced, sung, spat out. It continues to animate and energize a profoundly polyphonic language. Or so it seems, here on the surface of things.

And that’s just on the street: what’s going down in the theatre? In search of exciting non-naturalistic work, in one weekend in December I saw 2 off-off Broadway productions: Mac Wellman’s Cat’s-Paw at the Soho Rep, and the US premiere of British dramatist Sarah Kane’s Crave at the Axis Theatre. The production of Cat’s-Paw was exuberant, accomplished and performed with a kind of dark glee appropriate to Wellman; however, Crave fell terribly flat. The disappointment was more acute because I had eagerly anticipated the full production, having first encountered this play in a reading directed by Chris Mead on the rooftop of an East Sydney pub. Then, I was moved by the rhythms and repetitions of Kane’s writing and the way that states of obsession, desire and frozen memory are played out through these rhythms as much as by the content of the language.

Kane’s play revolves around 2 men and 2 women: the men, A and B, are respectively in (occasional) dialogue/connection with the women, an older M and younger C. The mode of speech alternates between reverie and dialogue, which is written as a rhythmic interplay on certain speech motifs rather than conventional dramatic interaction. There are suggested pathways of exchange but relationships are hinted at rather than developed: dialogue functions as collision, which spins the solitary balls back into their own orbits. A longing for love so strong that it consumes its own object; a moth-to-flame relationship to troubled memories of abuse (“she can’t remember and she can’t forget”) and repeated attempts to connect and to distance from a possible affair constitute the landscape of this play.

The New York production of Crave begins strongly: the Axis set is spare; no props, but a dappled light plays over a grey space, with minimalist sound/music creating a similar aural effect. Hung from the low ceiling are 4 video monitors that play continually through the performance. The actors move little, delivering their lines more to us than to each other. However, from the moment the video monitors begin the text begins its long struggle against the production, finally to sink without trace beneath an effortful recreation of psychological depth. The production works hard to create coherent subtext from Kane’s luminous fragments and neither the text nor the production survive the attempt. This is evident not in the staging, which remains austere, but in the visible thought-chains of the actors, struggling against the cadences of the text to create a subtextual inner journey for each character. Just in case their efforts are not enough, the video footage fills in the gaps by linking the text to an external ‘real.’ The 4 video monitors play continuous footage of the actors in real spaces: a bedroom, a café, drinking, smoking, enacting lonely angst. Where place-names surface briefly in the text (“Florin’s” and “Rudi’s”) these are seized upon by the video and screened in all their NYC veracity. Differently edited, the footage could work—another level of displacement—however it’s put to work in anchoring the real in a way which adds to the nett effect of failed and overwritten naturalism.

The attempt to drag ‘depth’ to the surface, thereby dulling the shimmer of Kane’s language and the pathos it enacts through its missed connections, was at its most marked in the older male character’s monologue on love. The actor turned this obsessional litany into a coherent monologue from a young man, perplexed in love, recalling the ups and downs of a relationship with a difficult young woman (poor dead Sarah Kane, perhaps). The contrast with Mead’s directed reading in Sydney could not be starker. There the same monologue was performed with a pleading stammer and lack of tonal variation: an astute choice—against the stumbling voice the yearning in the words floats light as cobwebs, only nominally tied to the possibility of a ‘real’ other. To imbue the narrator of this speech, as the Axis production attempts, with potency and hope of love is to fatally wound the writing. Kane’s cadences, drowned out here, are those of a fragile spell against loneliness: the mumble of prayer that expects no answer, the child rocking itself to sleep only after the longed-for parent fails to come.

Deflated but not defeated, it was time to head downtown a few blocks for Mac Wellman’s Cat’s-paw. On the way I wondered: is it true there’s no irony in America? Is it the gaps and silences in Kane’s writing that make it hard to stage in the US? The wonderful Cat’s-Paw—admittedly a play employing very different strategies of language—restored my belief in a certain vein of American irony that works not through understatement, but by excess. Wellman’s writing employs the hyper-real in the sense of fashioning a mode of dialogue scarily close to the surface. His work skims the river of American speech and draws on it as found object, with its elisions, loops, interruptions, excesses, brutal lack of listening, animal cunning, rather than crafting the dialogue of that familiar form of naturalistic theatre where motive, plot and yes, psychological depth of the shallow sort, prevail. By contrast, Sarah Kane’s work (4:48 Psychosis was briefly reviewed in RT#40 by Aleks Sierz, p4) comes from, and extends, a tragic strand within British writing which conjures a severe beauty from the condensed lyricism of its language: Edward Bond, Martin Crimp, Howard Barker predate and share elements of this line of writing. Subjectivity in Kane’s Crave is fractured from within rather than from without: with Wellman, the hectic collision of dialogic surfaces infuses the writing with a kind of demonic glee.

The Soho Rep production of Cat’s-Paw is directed and performed with energy, wit and a real relish for the hyperbolic curves of Wellman’s language. Kyle Chepulis’ set creates a simple and vertiginous space—a long black and white floor elevated above a drop of several feet at either side and the front, and raked upwards as it recedes—creating a false perspective: upstage seems very far away. This platform is the setting for 4 movements, played out like a game of chess: the first 3 take place high above the city, at the observation towers of the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center and inside the Statue of Liberty. The first movement pairs mother-daughter couple Hildegard and Jane Bub. They speculate on how long it would take to hit the ground if you jumped. There are dark references to Bermuda (or is it Key West?): “I don’t want to talk about Bermuda!” hinting at torrid affairs, at triangular disappearances or even the fashion disaster shorts of the same name. The second duet is between friends Jane Bub and Jo Rudge; again they speculate about suicidal drop-time from the platform, and struggle over the revelation and interpretation of dark pasts. In the third scene Jo Rudge and her adolescent daughter Lindsay break into the Statue of Liberty.

In one of the funniest and sharpest passages, Jo speaks to her daughter in familiar liberal-left platitudes about depth, human connection (not surprisingly, given Wellman’s iconoclasm, it’s also the territory of the heart-warming well made play) and yet we are refused the familiar pay-off of psychological revelation: Lindsay demolishes her mother’s beliefs with a machine-like relish and a kind of Ayn Rand commitment to personal supremacy. Lindsay praises the beauty and severe survivalism of the cockroach, falling in love with a “roach motel” (cockroach trap) and souveniring it. Jo attempts to explains the “cat’s-paw” of the title, an intricate game played with string wound around the player’s hands, but Lindsay isn’t interested.

The final movement brings the 4 women together outside the Federal Courtroom, where Jo and Lindsay have been arrested for stealing the roach motel and, in their escape, breaking the Statue of Liberty’s arm. In a wonderfully sharp digression which muses on the mutating nature of narration, Hildegard Bub attempts to tell Lindsay a story, beginning with “once upon a time” and Lindsay refuses such a premise as illogical and disturbing: Lindsay is only interested in the “continuous present.” Hildegard is reduced to the ‘real’, within which mode she enchants Lindsay with a contemporary news item involving a woman engineer who unsticks a ball of grease and sludge that blocks the sewage system of an entire town.

The content of the dialogue is oblique, almost baroque in its excess: its vision of a radically conservative youth demolishing the platitudes of baby-boomer liberalism is funny and acutely pertinent to the current US political landscape. The patterns and shapes of Wellman’s language-games recreate a sense of struggle, familiar to many mother-daughter dyads where connection is maintained only through keeping the string of the cat’s-paw tight: as with water in a full cup, always threatening to spill and saturate, it’s the surface tension that holds everything together.

Cat’s-Paw, writer Mac Wellman, director Daniel Aukin, performers Nancy Franklin, Alicia Goranson, Ann Talman, Laurie Williams, Soho Rep, 46 Walker St, opened December 15; Crave, writer Sarah Kane, director Randy Sharp, performers Brian Barnhart, Kristin Dispaltro, David Guion, Deborah Harry, Axis Company, 1 Sheridan Square, NY, closed December 23

Christine Evans is an Australian playwright and musician currently in the US as a visiting Fulbright scholar in the MFA (Playwriting) Program at Brown University.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 21

© Christine Evans; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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