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Middletown

March 16th, 2012 No comments

Will Eno's Middletown at Dobama

Went and saw Middletown by Will Eno last night at Dobama. It was a strange show. First, given the nature of the play (life in a small town) and Second, the varied cast of characters and events (being somewhat eccentric, etc), and Finally, the epic sweep of the thematic content (life, death, love, the universe, our place in it, etc.) there are obvious parallels to Our Town by Thorton Wilder.

The play is engaging, for the most part, and the first act is filled with a strangeness that is difficult to describe: things, events, characters, and ideas (statements) are juxtaposed with other things, events, characters, and ideas and the clashing of the two creates a dissonance that is abrupt and sometimes very comic. The statements from characters and language used is equally abrupt and strange and it is clear that Eno is playing as much with words and how they mean and just the raw sounds of words, as he’s playing with big ideas. If you, dear reader, are like me, occasionally you’ll say a word and the word will sound so strange in your ears that you’ll repeat it again and again until the word itself loses meaning and just becomes this guttural sound that is disconnected entirely from anything. Some of this is at play in Middletown. This notion of the strangeness of words and their association with concrete things in the world is one of the arguments, often, for learning to speak a second language or even a third, because learning another language is learning to see the world in a different way, for instance, the Spanish language associates all nouns with gender. So the moon is “la luna” a female object. The sun “el sol” is a male object. And virtually everything has this gendered nature. This causes one, I think, to experience the world differently. For an example of the dissonance and clashing I mentioned above, early in the play, I’ll go with the librarian example (having been one myself and being always interested in the stereotypes of the profession), one of the “main characters” Mary (Carly Germany) goes into the library to request a library card. This request is met positively by the Librarian (Laura Starnik) who says, “Good for you dear. A lot of people figure, ‘Why bother? I’m just going to die, anyway.’”

What makes for strangeness and good fun does not, however, make for good “deep” connections with characters. This sort of strangeness and light-hearted non-committal to characters in any meaningful way results in a very surfacy attachment and interest in them, and, as with may Eno plays, there is a tendency to just sit and think and try and keep up with his use of language and the strangeness of his ideas. I saw Thom Pain at Dobama several years back, and it was the same thing. Except there you have an exceptionally intimate encounter with one man who is baring his soul, or trying anyway, and periodically covering it over with neurotic defense mechanisms to keep you away from his soul. It is a passive agressive experience of the highest order and equally fascinating to listen to and contemplate as fast as you can. What works well in Thom Pain, though, does not work as well in Middletown. With Middletown there genuinely feels, at times, as if there is an earnestness to the attempt to reveal something beautiful and terrible and deeply real about the human condition, and I would say that on a few occasions this succeeds. But for the most part it does not, simply because there is so much of the Thom Pain cynicism and comic clashing happening. There are moving moments with the Police Officer (Jason Markouc) and the Mechanic (Fabio Polanco) when they reveal their inner demons and troubles to the Librarian–who has known them since they were little boys (again, small town angle); but most of it gets lost amidst the easy laughs and verbal gymnastics that are Eno’s trademark. Like his play Tragedy: a tragedy, there is something smug about the sorrow, something removed and distant–sort of a “I know you’ll think this is moving, but I don’t, in fact, I’m more entertained by your thinking this is moving than in really moving you.” It’s like psychologist sitting behind a one-way mirror to observe the suffering and distress of another person, but not really empathizing with it or feeling it himself–perhaps even joking about it.

I do like Eno’s work as he is truly a remarkable thinker and his use of language is stunning; and Middletown is no exception. There were points in the play where I felt that longing and epic reach of Our Town–that sense of individual isolation, even in the midst of others–that makes Our Town so powerful. But, as Mike Geither and Chris Johnston noted, whom I went out with after the show, there is a deep earnest sincerity in Wilder and a genuine love of people and their weaknesses that comes through in Our Town that does not come through in Middletown. The only question is, what is Eno’s intent? Maybe he doesn’t want you to connect at all. Maybe he wants the audience, which the play engages frequently, to be removed–a la Brecht–to not identify with or emotionally connect with the characters. The only question that remains then, is “to what end”? Eno could be saying something about the disconnected nature of our modern society, compared with Wilder’s society. Given his outstanding thrashing and skewering of the local news media in Tragedy: a tragedy, that just might be the case.

The set for this play at Dobama was fantastic, so hats off to Laura Carlson. And the cast was fantastic for this production as well, including Robert Hawkes, Tom Woodward, Emily Demko, Mark Mayo (who was performing after surgery, no less), Maryann Elder and my former MNO classmate, Dianne Boduszek.

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