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The Internationalist at convergence

December 2nd, 2011 No comments

Gunplay in a strange land

Gunplay in a strange land; photo Cory Molner.

I went and saw The Internationalist (Anne Washburn) last night at convergence and was quite happy with seeing it. I was a bit worried initially as I read a New York Times theater review of the play and, while the reviewer was clearly interested in the play it was not favorable review. In fact, it put a bit of fear in me that I was going to endure yet another evening of theater that was so-so. But, as I mentioned at the outset, I was happily surprised and engaged by it.

The plot loosely follows the character Lowell (Tom Kondilas) who has come from the United States to a strange and unknown/undisclosed country on business. Lowell is suffering from jet lag, cannot speak the language in the country, and suffers certain impudent assumptions about his character based on his being from the ole US of A. While the plot follows Lowell’s experiences, many of which are strange, the plot also dallies with the sexual relationship between Lowell and Sara (Laurel Hoffman). In many instances the play takes on a sort of Noir detective feel that is pleasantly enhanced by Laurel Hoffman’s costuming, Clyde Simon’s set design, and certainly Lisa L. Wiley’s light design.

Much of my concern at seeing the piece was over the various “rumors” I had heard all over the place describing the unintelligible sections/swaths of text. The sections are provided when the “natives” are speaking their language. When talking with Clyde after the show, he spoke of how massive the swaths of this text are and how there is no stage direction provided as to what to do with the text. Given this fact, I can say unabashedly the Clyde did a fantastic job in directing the piece as he turned these huge chunks of strangeness into very meaningful sections: sections with grace, urgency, energy, even genuine emotion and longing. Laurel Hoffman did, predictably, a fantastic job with her role and is always worth seeing. The massive sections of glossolalia that she has to spit out are spit out with an astonishing fluency. God knows how much time she spent working it out and my mind laughingly speculates on Laurel and Geoff at home of an evening speaking this language together around the fireplace. (Congratulations to them on their marriage as well!) But, in truth, every one of the actors did a fantastic job with the gibberish that Washburn crafted, as did Clyde. Especially Clyde. I have not read the play so I do not know what is or is not in the stage directions, but according to Clyde there is nothing to give direction to the massive swaths of foreignness that reign on stage. Clyde does a great job with providing not only an interpretation of the text, but offering the audience an opportunity to understand it. These sections prove again and again that theater is a visual medium as much as an aural and logically crafted one. Much of what is understood during these strange sections is understood by watching the physical interaction between the characters/actors and how they physically manifest the text. Handled poorly, these sections would become a real drag. They were NOT handled poorly. Ray Caspio, as James for instance, does a masterful job telling a story/joke in Washburn’s gibberish, gesticulating all the while to make it clear what is going on. Caspio is equally worth seeing in his role as the Ancient Bartender, in this role I took no end of delight in watching his rickety tottering, the manner in which he meticulously maintained the lanky rigidness of the aged Nazi-poisoner.

The play itself consists of a thin plot about the goings on in a foreign company which Lowell has come to work for/with. His relationship to the company is unclear, but he seems to be some sort of financial manager slash troubleshooter. The goings-on in the company are complicated by his sexual tryst with Sara, who announces herself as a “colleague” when she picks Lowell up at the airport. This turns into trouble later when Lowell discovers that she is a secretary rather than “an equal” in terms of position, salary, etc. Interspersed with this story are various episodes, the strangest of which is Lowell’s encounter with a prostitute on the street. Some of these episodes are not materially relevant to the plot, perhaps, but add significant texture to the play. I say “perhaps” because it is not clear precisely what the plot of the play is. This is where, I think, the New York Times review was the toughest on Washburn, and perhaps rightly so. Is the story about Lowell’s experience in a strange land? Is it about the company that Lowell is working for? Is it about his relationship with Sara? Is it about his strange experience in a foreign land? In the end, it is likely about all of these things, but I believe Washburn is aiming mostly as the sense of strangeness that comes with being out of place: locations are disjointed/distorted, cultural practices are distorted, language is distorted, and even scenes are oddly shaped and distorted. Having read Washburn’s play Apparition: An Uneasy Play of the Underknown in New Downtown Now, it is clear that she likes to experiment with what is vague, indistinct, and unclear–as well as what may be eerie to some. In The Internationalist, Washburn explores this region again and places the audience in a location where nothing is ever explicit or certain as demonstrated by the conclusion of the play (which I won’t spoil here).

The cast of The Internationalist at concon is fantastic, including Laura Starnik, Geoff Hoffman, and Robert Hawkes, who is wonderful in his dual roles as both Simon and Paul. The play is definitely worth seeing and runs through Saturday, December 17.

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