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Finn in the Underworld

September 16th, 2009 No comments

I’m pretty excited about the upcoming production at convergence-continuum. A few years ago I went over to see Act a Lady by Jordan Harrison which was an hilarious romp. So, this next piece by Harrison is to be anticipated, too. However, this one is not a funny romp. In fact, it is the exact opposite: dark, brooding, and sinister.

Finn in the Underworld at convergence-continuum

Finn in the Underworld at convergence-continuum

Clyde Simon, the artistic director for convergence, is pretty careful in laying out the season–placing comedic hits like Charles Mee’s Big Love right in the midst of summer to catch that breezy, sunny disposition that keeps us all optimistic, happy, and alive; but coming right back as the weather changes over to windy, overcast, and cooling to stoke our more fearful and depressed autumnal dispositions. Finn in the Underworld is the perfect direction, as Lucy Bredeson-Smith (who plays Gwen in the play) points out, for Halloween.

I recently sat down and interviewed the cast and director of the upcoming production, so I went to Playscripts and read much of the play that they have freely available online: Then, when I got to The Liminis, as I waited while they all ran tech, I finished up the play with the scripts that were laying about on the set. I was not disappointed.

It was initially a strange sensation, reading the play. I am used to finding books through Google Books, reading happily along, and then encountering pages missing from the middle of the book–Google’s meagre concession to copyright concerns. This extraction of pages leads to a choppy reading experience. So, as I read Finn in the Underworld I was suddenly greeted by jumps in the script that sent me looking for page numbers to make sure that pages weren’t missing…that Playscripts hadn’t done the same thing. They hadn’t. Harrison’s script plays with jumps in time and it caught me off guard.

The jumps in time are what most attracts me to the play. It is fascinating to see an encounter at 7:35 pm only to (later on) pick up the thread of what happened earlier at 2:00 in the afternoon. The jumping fills in the details on events in strange ways, creating connections that go different directions in time and create a curiously timeless, eerie feeling…as if one were, I don’t know, in Hades? I was very much reminded of Fefu and Her Friends by Fornes which creates a similar feeling through the four mobile scenes in the mid-section of the play. There is something strangely vibrant about seeing scenes out of order and then connecting pieces of information from one place back to another. Harrison’s play handles this very competently and it creates a spine-tingling experience.

Harrison has described his play as a ‘psychosexual gothic horror story,’ which is an apt description, as there are elements of all of this in the play. Gothic stories, especially stories with horror elements, remind me of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights–the mad woman in the attic or ghosts on the moors. But the elements are present here, too: a dark house, an unexplained death, a family mystery that spans generations, and, very like the tales by the Bronte sisters, a jagged-love that is doomed from the start. Appropriately, Harrison quotes Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House at the outset of his play: “An evil old house, the kind some people call “haunted”, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored.”

For those of you who want a surprise, go and see this play! It will deliver. For those of you who want to see the play, but don’t mind having your surprise compromised, spoilers follow.

Warning: Spoiler Alert — What follows reveals plot, story, and will ruin your fun.

The quote from Hill House is more than just support for the Gothic horror feel of the piece. Other than the way Harrison plays with time and play structure, the one event that threw me the most was the revelation that Carver Bishop was already dead: thus putting the ghost element squarely at the center of the horror story. But, this is not nearly enough. Harrison, like Jackson, continues, with a house that is itself alive and that wishes to consume all of those within its walls, to keep the men and women forever, tucked inside of some unearthly plane of semi-existence.

This plane is where the second act of Harrison’s play occurs, and very like the Hades mentioned briefly above, the action that transpires is very Greek in its notion of the Underworld: very Greek because the river Lethe, which flows through Hades, erases the memories of the dead who drink from it. As with those poor dead folk in Hades, so it is with all the characters in the play who are consumed by the house–and as it no doubt is for those consumed by family grief or a tragic history–memory becomes questionable, personal history is drowned or left in a murky twilight, and logic begins to run in circles. For me, this last part of Harrison’s play is the most disturbing. It is oppressive, suffocating, and claustrophobic–and it is by no means an accident that it transpires within the confines of bomb shelter.

This play runs through October 17 at convergence and I can hardly wait to see it.

Cut to Pieces

June 15th, 2009 No comments

Oh, what a marvelous piece.  Or is it pieces? I have been thinking about this play, performance, installation, multimedia extravaganza since seeing it on Saturday night.  In the making, on and off, for nearly five years, Raymond Bobgan and Chris Seibert delivered a work that was clever, intimate, mysterious, amazing, shocking, and damn nearly a dozen other adjectives that I could rattle off all to the infinite boredom of you, my fine reader.

The piece begins innocently enough with Seibert stepping forward in the persona of C.C. Bertie who has made a play.  Nervously excited, Bertie happily chats about her work with some modest instructions to the audience–such as to imagine the things that are not on stage (i.e. at one point she says, essentially, “if I’m climbing a flight of stairs… Well, you don’t see any stairs here do you?”)  This introduction is metatheatrical, as it introduces the play within a play and “breaks the fourth wall” by directly addressing the audience.  C.C. Bertie’s character, along with being nervously excited, is shy and overly-enthusiastic as she introduces her work.

The work begins with a video projection along with which Bertie hums and bum bum bum’s the Overture.  The video winds its way through a fire and inside the study of Mr. Hades, whose fireplace we will stare at for the next two hours.  Chiseled into the fireplace are the words “Ars Magna Alchemica Est,” if my memory serves, which means, I think, “This is the Magic of Great Art" or "This is a Great Work of Magic" or something like that. Which, in my opinion, was certainly confirmed by the time the play wrapped up.  My mind immediately latched on to Hades, which was then commented on by Bertie herself who said something to the effect of “I know, it’s creepy isn’t it?” 

We are then introduced to the premise: six people saying the night at Mr. Hades’ estate, one will inherit everything as Mr. Hades is going away.  The six characters include Mr. Cobb; Mr. Cobb’s wife, Blighty; Georgina; the Guy; Nervous Girl; and Young Master Whistler.  After receiving instructions from Mr. Hades, they each retire to their respective rooms for the night, which appear in quadrants on the video screen as surveillance video of four bedrooms.  Except for Young Master Whistler, who leaves the house (against the protestations of Nervous Girl). The plot quickly picks up pace as we see, for instance, Guy looking under his bed on the surveillance video, and chaos generally breaks out as pieces of a dismembered woman are found scattered about the house.  An Inspector arrives to determine what has happened, but the Inspector vanishes after going into the attic. A parallel story is also introduced with Young Master Whistler running off to visit a widow–who lives on a property adjacent to Mr. Hades’ estate. This story introduces the widow as an abused wife (hit and branded with a hot fire poker) whose husband has died (choking on his own vomit).  There are rumors that the widow is a witch.  The parallel story takes on attributes of all such stories, and I was reminded vaguely of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom.  There is also a strong Oedipal element to their relationship, as the widow constantly takes actions that Young Master Whistler observes as being things his mother also does.

The action of the piece is moved along through various mechanisms which make the work much more powerful than this basic plot exposition provides.  For instance, as the victim is discovered, the video screen breaks into a montage of scraps of slasher films depicting the brutal murders of women being, appropriately, cut to pieces. The use of quadrants of surveillance-type footage ad a certain ‘realistic’ grit to the production. The projection of the fireplace in the study had a surreal impact on me for a variety of reasons. First, I have for many years had strange dreams of being in a haunted house–very passé, I know, but in my dreams the house is alive with a locus of evil in the cellar–usually the furnace room–which I am compelled for some reason to visit. The house can be small or immense.  It can be familiar, or very foreign–somehow, though, I find myself going down into the cellar.  Ultimately, I am convinced that I am being guided through my own subconscious to the source of something powerful and yet not fully known to me.  I feel almost like Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.  Second, when I was younger I used to play various video games, one of which was The Seventh Guest. And the fireplace and premise for the first part of this play very much reminded me of this game–making me feel very much like I was immersed within it. As well, each ‘character’ introduced is a virtual character shown only as a projection standing with a certain body posture.  C.C. Bertie enacts the role of each character as she tells her story and assumes that character’s body posture, as projected, while speaking–thus, the audience comes to know the characters in Mr. Hades’ house more so by their physical manifestation, than by what each says. With regard to Young Master Whistler and the Widow, this story takes place in a parallel space, stage left of the “main space.”  There is a plain mat with a circle of stones–a magic circle–inside is the widow, outside is the young master. 

(Spoiler alert, as I will be revealing things — I know that Raymond mentioned some pieces going to the NY Fringe, I don’t know if Cut to Pieces is (it should be)–regardless, I’ll be discussing story points).

In Act II the Hades and Persephone plot gathers steam, the Inspector returns, and the relationship between Young Master Whistler and the Widow intensifies.  The act begins, again, with C.C. Bertie coming out and discussing her play and apologizing for the fact that it was sort of weird.  She then goes into a discussion of live studio audiences and how they have signs that they hold up that read “A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E” and when the signs are held up people’s faces look like this: stunned face, and she then claps with great enthusiasm.  A nice comic moment.  Bertie then tells the audience that if she had a show the sign would read “A-W-W-W-W-W” and every time a guest came on the show that would be the sign that came up: “like a puppy.”  At which point, some in our audience did say “Awwww” which produced great excitement from Bertie; who then got the whole audience to do it again with her–remarking that they should remember that, as it would be important later.  The ‘who-done-it’ begins again with the Inspector grilling Mr. Hades.  After some doing, Mr. Hades produces a sack with and dumps out a doll that is in pieces, bemoaning what has happened to her.  The Inspector grills everyone and C.C. Bertie becomes implicated in events herself–surprising her.  The plot of Persephone’s abduction becomes one of Bertie’s descent into the “underworld” of her own head where this whole Whodunit is taking place. Young Master Whistler begins working for the Widow in earnest, gathering black, reflectionless water; building fires; getting wood; etc, and, in general, living with the Widow.  She treats him very well, feeding him food that his mother would only fix on special occasions and he attempts to learn from her–what precisely is unclear.  The Widow reveals facts about her husband’s death after drinking something the Widow prepared for him and that she could not stay in the house after his death, moving progressively farther and farther away and eventually building a new house that abutted the property of Mr. Hades.  The Widow watches the “comings and goings” at Mr. Hades’ house, noting that people go in, but seldom come out.  Only one, in fact–Young Master Whistler.  We learn that there is a relationship between Georgina and Guy, and then hear a “look what you made me do” story about the rape of a young girl–who, according to the story–is dismembered afterwards.  The relentless questioning by the Inspector leads to the implication that Georgina has been raped by Guy. But eventually culminates in the breakdown of C.C. Bertie who hides herself in a box on stage and the Inspector invokes a Pity Party for her counting 1…2…3… at which point the audience says “awwww” per the above.  This continues as Bertie reveals her interest in joining the pity party and the revelation that Bertie is Georgina and the girl in the story (all the characters, in fact) and that she has been raped.  The Inspector says, “oh, you’ve been raped… 1…2…3…” and the audience says “awwww” at which point most people in the audience realized, shocked somewhat, what they just said, how, and the implication of the revelation and their reaction to it.  C.C. Bertie begins giving herself a pity party in the box, chanting “1…2…3… Awwww” incessantly as the Inspector bursts into song I Fall to Pieces by Patsy Cline (dubbed) and the whole stage becomes a mire of confusion and sound and visual effects as the recording of Cline picks up speed and whirs into chipmunk talk and the Inspector writhes and tears off the red dress she’s wearing and falls to the floor.

The technical effects are wonderful during this section as well.  There is a small wheeled cart on stage, which reminded me of something used by hotdog vendors.  In the first act it was the cart on which Mr. Hades “sat at his desk”.  In Act II, the dismembered doll is dumped on top of it and C.C. Bertie enacts several scenes discussing the rape and the relationship with the rapist.  A small camera was installed on the handle of the cart to capture the “eye-level” view of the doll, and the video was projected to the main screen.  This dual theatrical reality is something that I’ve discussed elsewhere in the context of convergence-continuum’s play Spawn of the Petrolsexuals where similar effects were used.  For instance, I wrote:

At another point, Anger Boy, in a crisis of faith, confronts God.  The exchange is carried out in the style of an interview.  On stage, Anger Boy sits on a crate next to a broken TV, talking with a fellow homeless man, played by Wes Shofner.  On the video screen (pre-recorded) is Geoff wearing a suit of clothes sitting behind a desk—very like an interview one sees on a late-night television talk show—and Wes, wearing flowing white robes with a full head and beard of white hair, sits on a nearby couch for the interview.  This event, in the performance, creates a contrast between what the audience sees in front of them on stage (the crate, a broken TV), and what the audience sees projected on the screen (the late-night interview).  The realization of this contrast, and the implication of its meaning (that Anger Boy is imagining or delusional) is a part of the storytelling—a part of the storytelling that would be impossible to convey by any “normal” theatrical means. Thus, for convergence-continuum, the very process of play creation becomes an active one, one that is occurring even during the live theatrical performance, and one in which the audience becomes a participant, not simply a passive viewer.  Both of the examples provided instantiate the artistic statement given above: that is, the audience crosses the threshold into the world of the play and experiences it; and the experience of theater expands the imagination and extends the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space, and performance that challenges the conventional notions of what theater is.  And it is that conventional notion of theater that younger audiences today have come to reject, and which convergence seeks to expand, evolve, and turn on its head.

The same is true here with Cut to Pieces, the live performance by Seibert is contrasted with the prerecorded video on the screen creating a “split reality” or a “layered reality” which creates very complex meaning–very like the Betonie the Shaman section in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, where the dialectic of time and space folds meaning in on itself and expanding our understanding of reality–even unconsciously–exponentially.  The audience becomes aware of this, even if only in a visceral way, and it heightens the experience of the event.  As well, the prerecording of C.C. Bertie inside the larger box, while Seibert bursts out of the box as the inspector dressed in a red dress was a wonderful moment, enhanced by the chaos of the 1…2…3…, etc. and the lip syncing with Patsy Cline.  Seibert writes in ink on her fingers which is visible under blacklight (and through the cart-top camera), creating stick figure people, hearts with names in them, and animated drawings on the screen all lend themselves to very unique and powerful story-telling methods. The interaction with the stones on the mat to create different sorts of “spaces” and the use of the stones themselves as markers for the Widow and Young Master Whistler, further enhanced what I keep finding myself referring to as the three dimensional nature of the performance–by which I mean performances that understand the full-scope of what theater is–the use of space, sound, light, props, etc. to create immersive experience, as contrasted with traditional flat, naturalistic space configurations where two dimensional characters carry on conversations beyond a fourth wall.  Throughout the pace was well-managed and right when the potential for flagging interest presented itself a new direction and burst of energy surged forth reinvigorating the performance and reengaging interest in compelling ways.

In the Act III, Persephone returns to the surface as the doll is put back together. The Inspector takes on a god-like presence on both the stage and the screen, becoming the voice of the unconscious–Superego?–pushing the Ego out of its hiding spot beneath the surface and into the light.  In the subplot of Young Master Whistler and the Widow, we see that despite his better intentions, Young Master Whistler becomes complacent and the Widow, not to be taken advantage of, pushes him out.  Despite protestations of love and hopes for marriage which will not be fulfilled, the Widow rejects Young Master Whistler remanding him to a new path and an alternate life than what he had envisioned.  Young Master Whistler points out to the Widow that he owns the land abutting her property and that is where he hoped to live with her.  Not desiring to live alone, Young Master Whistler gives the Widow the land nonetheless and remarks that he will be leaving.  It becomes clear throughout that Young Master Whistler and Mr. Hades are the same person.  I can’t remember if the Widow states that she will clear the land or if Young Master Whistler volunteers to do so, but the house being razed becomes a fact.  Back at the house, C.C. Bertie is coming to terms with what has happened to her, the mystery having been resolved, and the sudden realization that the house is on fire.  All are running from the house and must escape its destruction.  And C.C. Bertie, the rape victim, gathers together all her shattered personas and stands before the audience as herself, a unified woman once again–damaged, but stronger.  All that is left, presumably, is the reality of the myth, in which Persephone ate pomegranate seeds and was thus remanded to returning to the underworld for half of the year–hence the seasons.  I can only assume that C.C. Bertie will experience a similar fate, periodically returning to the desolate landscape of the interior night throughout the remainder of her time.

I must apologize here as my consideration of this piece was, unfortunately, stretched to many days beyond the performance and I have been forced to rely on an all-too-unreliable memory for the main of this and did not, as I would have liked, see the performance three or four times.  This play by Seibert and Bobgan is one of the best that I have seen in a long time and has impacted how I think of theater making. 

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