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ThomPain – Will Eno

February 20th, 2007 No comments

Thom Pain (based on nothing)as seen at Dobama Theatre on 4 February 2007.

I think the biggest thing of interest to me about seeing Will Eno’s Thom Pain, as opposed to reading it, was the interpretation made in the presentation; or, using the more cliche lingo, the "choices" that were made.

In the post performance discussion, Scott Plate said that he and Joel Hammer had made decisions regarding the character that were different from the New York show. This was based on descriptions provided by Tony Brown, who apparently saw the original show in New York. Brown said that the character/interpretation was somewhat vicious in his incarnation and distant. The performance was menacing and left the audience with a distinct and pervasive feeling of having been ravaged.

The performance I witnessed was that of a more neurotic character, a man who was decidedly in mental chaos: clear and articulate, piercing and insightful; then muddy and worried and uncertain. I found the character, as presented at Dobama, to be worthy of empathy and concern: a human character worthy of compassion.

In seeing the performance, as again opposed to reading the script, I was surprised at how clearly the "spine" of the work became clear: the failure to connect with the family, the loss of the dog, the failure to connect with society, the loss of the lover. These points of the play stood out very well, in my mind–where in the text they were somewhat more difficult to discern. In seeing the piece I found it highly compelling. Additionally, the intentionally theatrical moments of the performance: where the character addresses and interacts with the audience, were very real and had a tantalizing influence on me as a spectator: even though I knew they were coming. In fact, I found this the most peculiar part of the experience: knowing full well something was coming and the nature of that something and yet still being affected by it.

I also noted that one of my favorite lines was botched; but I gained a completely new appreciation for one line that still haunts me, and likely always will. The line that was botched was: "And somewhere in the same night another youth bleeds between her legs, wondering what for, sure she’s done something wrong, unsure whom to tell." I was very disappointed because I thought it so profound. It was either botched or cut. I found it profound and disturbing all at once, along with the line that has become my favorite: "What a surprise to have a body." I am not sure why these two lines resonate so deeply with me, but I will try to put a finger on it. I think it is Eno’s very precise association of bodily events with the mind’s judgment of the self. The mind searches the universe incessantly to make connections between things. That is what makes great artists and inventors and businessmen and–well, any great person–great–is their ability to connect things that are unconnected. It is the true act of creativity in the world. A person can do something or create something or write something never being sure that it hasn’t been thought or written or created by someone else before. But the connection of two disparate things: two things that have not been connected is an original act; unique in that it creates something larger than itself and releases a new energy into the world. The mind is always trying to connect things: connect, connect, connect, connect–what does this mean, how does this relate to this other thing–why me? What have I done? And that is what is haunting about Eno’s lines. The mind judges. Bleeding is bad. Bleeding from your “secret parts” (to use the Medieval phrasing) is very bad. There is no reason for it. The mind is magical. The mind connects unrelated things to create meaning. That is magic. That is why science will always loose to the superstitious mind. We are hard wired to believe, to our souls, things that are refutable: but to the mind as hard as scientific fact will ever be. To the primitive mind, a yellow bird pressed against the skin will take the yellow evil of jaundice away with it out the window. It makes perfect sense. If it doesn’t work, then it is not a reflection on the concept, but on the recipient. The girl lying in the dark will associate this bad thing happening to her with some act that she must have committed. Somewhere a brooding justice falls on her for what she has thought, or may have done, or may have thought, once, of doing. Blood doesn’t just happen. There is a reason. And in the illogical darkness: the murk of the primitive jungle in our unconscious: judgment. Taboo.

I know this feeling. Who doesn’t? And I am moved, wrenched to think of that girl in that darkness fearing that she has done something wrong when the body is just doing what it does to advance the species. Oh, how science takes the magic from us. How clinical and removed it is. Cut off your arm and it becomes a thing. The sensation it has provided you is gone; the utility of movement is lost. Science. Of science, as Yeats says, more poetically than I can ever dare imagine:

from The Song of the Happy Shepherd

"… Seek, then,
No learning from the starry men,
Who follow with the optic glass
The whirling ways of stars that pass –
Seek, then, for this is also sooth,
No word of theirs – the cold star-bane
Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain,
And dead is all their human truth."

I find that I am strangely drawn to this play. I enjoy it. The more I think about it the more I find myself discovering. These are excellent qualities in anything. But I also don’t like that I am drawn to it. My mind rebels against these postmodern plays, or these post post modern absurdist plays. The plays that all the "hot" writers write; the "up-and-coming" writers. They seem to me hyperpersonal. It is as if each is vomiting his or her neuroses. I feel at once like quoting a Neil LaBute character and a character of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s an odd combination. In The Shape of Things, Adam says, outraged at the end,

I’ve completely missed the point here, and somehow puking up…all your own shitty little neuroses all over people’s laps is actually art–

Nick Carraway, at the beginning of The Great Gatsby remarks,

I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accuses of being a politician, because I was so privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought-frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon…

I feel often that I am somewhere in between these poles when it comes to "new" theatre. I am pulled constantly between the poles of expressing myself and hoping that my own little, neurotic experience is universal enough that it connects with people; or expressing myself through attempts at displaying universal, epic themes, and flinching away from the postmodern accusation that you cannot generalize anymore–that horse is dead and beaten and buried.

I am clearly moving into a new phase in my own writing. I know this. I can feel it, and feel the urge to explore. This is good. I just wonder if it will lead me to a clearing in the jungle that no one wants to visit. A place that is not only unremarkable, but perhaps, repulsive.

That is to say, to sort of crystallize this, what is theatre today? What is the point of it, what is the goal of it, what should it be? I am torn between my traditional expectations of the Aristotelian model: the proud and noble character who experiences a reversal, fails, repents, and is destroyed in front of everyone; to the now post, postmodern offerings of completely destroyed personalities offering up their dreadful experiences as something universal. One could argue that it is a reversal of what is right (or is it just beginning at a different point?). I am reminded of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:

The slave revolt in morality begins when the resentment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the resentment of those beings who are prevented from a genuinely active reaction and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance. While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant self-affirmation, slave morality from the start says No to what is “outside,” “other,” “a non-self”. And this No is its creative act. This transformation of the glance which confers value–this necessary projection towards what is outer instead of back into itself–that is inherent in resentment. In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself. Psychologically speaking, it needs external stimuli in order to act at all. Its action is basically reaction.

That is, what has been viewed as good, right, and moral is viewed by those who are disaffected as evil, wrong, and immoral. Hence, the inversion begins. I am torn by this and think often that what I am seeing in modern theatre is nothing more than the utter dissolution of anything noble or (hating to use the loaded word) moral. And I don’t know that I mean that in a religious judgmental sort of way, but a more humanistic way: that we elevate what is debased and dismiss what attempts to lift.

Well, there is no easy way to wrap this commentary up. So, it will be left as it is, with that flat and petered-out ending. These are my thoughts, though, on the 19th of February, 2007. Where they shall lead me on the 20th, and 21st, and all days after I must wait, like everyone else, to see!

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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