Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 151-171)

Unlike the other Infinite Aaron, I've been falling steadily behind in my reading of Infinite Jest, falling, I suspect, prey to the same malaise that struck me both of the previous times I attempted to read through David Foster Wallace's novel. That is, namely, that I don't want to finish the novel. Appropriately enough, I got lost reading Beckett this past week, specifically some of his short plays and novels (research for two excellent shows I reviewed, First Love and Krapp, 39), and they reminded me greatly of the rambling monologue James Sr. (p. 157-169) delivers to his son, James O. Incandenza, in B.S. 1960. That is, they are moments you could get lost inside, moments that are so rich, so thick, so ultimately enjoyable, that they almost compel you, feverishly, to reread them, over and over again, looking for meaning. This is, I imagine, how some people feel about texts that are more religious in nature.

But I digress: this section is, as James puts it after putting away a shot of his amber liquid, "gloriously painful," which is appropriate, as it sums up the man's entire life, fixated as he in using his son, Jim, to recreate the past. "I'm giving it the one last total shot a man's obligation to his last waning talent deserves," he says of his last-ditch efforts to return to Hollywood, even though he's unable to even make it to the tennis courts with his uninterested ten-year-old son. (No wonder, then, that James Jr. eventually makes such rebellious apres-garde films.) No, he's still hung up on his own father issues, with the way, in 1933, his father's cruelly dismissive "Yes, But He'll Never Be Great," causes his body to self-destruct on the tennis court. And in doing so, he has carried over the worst of his father's traits, specifically the centrally isolating solipsism (a theme of the novel, if you haven't yet guessed) that Wallace evokes here, a conversation between father and son in which only the father speaks and even the son's actions drown within a sea of text.

The drunker James gets, the more I think of Beckett, too, for the whole thing turns into a rant on mortality: "I'm . . . I'm just afraid of having a tombstone that says HERE LIES A PROMISING OLD MAN." And, in light of Wallace's eventual succumbing to depression, there's a lesson here, too, about the dark gift of talent, for it is a gift that is either lived up to or lost, and some people cannot cope with the feeling of losing touch with their talent. (Better to have loved and lost may apply to the heart, but not the mind, for which blissfully unburdened ignorance is sometimes preferred.) James wails about being there--inside the perfect machine of his body that he created--and I can't help but remember the introduction to Infinite Jest, in which Hal tries to communicate that he is present, locked to some degree within his "perfect" body. (Hal's talent for tennis is never questioned.)

I want to address, briefly, a criticism that I've heard from some people about this novel, particularly sections like this. They seem to think that it is filled with technical writing, and that all of the characters ultimately end up sounding alike. This is simply not true--the words may not always fit the characters, but the rhythm of the language is always unique to each section. Like Joyce, much of Wallace's work is better when read aloud (and I've heard good buzz about the film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men currently playing at Sundance). Just listen: "He plays golf. Your grandfather. Your grandpappy. Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table, Jim. A bodiless game of spasmodic flailing and flying sod. A quote unquote sport. Anal rage and checkered berets. This is almost empty." Out of context, sure, that description of golf might seem out of character, and yes, the "quote/unquote" business is identifiably Wallace. And yet it's James's voice pressing through it, slurring perhaps, but there all the same.

In light of all that (by the way, Hal's father's initials are J.O.I., or "joy"), seeing Pemulis's Drug Smuggling (p. 169-171) is rather underwhelming, but there's a nice nugget buried in footnote 57 that compares the "incredibly potent [drug] DMZ" to a piece of modernist work. Considering how much I've been tripping out on Infinite Jest (in much the same way, I dare say, as the poor victims of J.O.I.'s film version), I'd say that's a pretty accurate description.

Words looked up: parping, rutilant, purled

Monday, January 26, 2009


Photo/Carol Rosegg

"To the true artist, one fact is the same as another," says the painter George Frederick Watts, struggling to find a way in which to paint Modesty in such a way that she is both veiled and naked. Perhaps that's why, in the midst of her more serious writing, Virginia Woolf set some private time aside to work on Freshwater, a gentle satirizing of art that contains absolutely no facts. In Anne Bogart's hands (cobbled together from the original 1923 script and Woolf's 1935 revision), the play serves as a lighthearted cry for freedom--there are no suicides here, and a divorce is handled by way of porpoise.

The problem Ellen Terry (Kelly Maurer) faces--while posing for her husband Watt's (Barney O'Hanlon) "Modesty Crouching at the Feet of Mammon"--is that nothing ever changes in this house. The philosopher Charles Hay Cameron (Tom Nelis) and his photographer wife, Julia Margaret Cameron (Ellen Lauren), are off to live in India--but not until their coffins arrive. Alfred Lord Tennyson (Stephen Duff Webber), the poet, has been reading Maud to his friends so often that the words have lost all meaning. When a handsome soldier appears, Lt. John Craig (Gian Murray Gianino), she jumps at the chance to actually be seen, heard, and loved--he is no self-absorbed artist. (Nor is the knowing maid, Mary Magdalen [Akiko Aizawa].)

Freshwater was designed to be performed and seen by Woolf's friends in the Bloombury Group, and the play's humor is directed mainly at self-aware artists. However, Bogart has added some musical numbers and beefed up the sight gags so as to make it a broader comedy. (Nelis might as well be auditioning for Monty Python; Webber is mimicking Will Ferrell.) In fact, the play has enough doors opening and closing to be a farce, save that for all the entrances and exits, nobody ever really goes anywhere or does anything. So far as ham goes, Bogart's seasoned Woolf's recipe as well as she can and it does stand at a lean 70 minutes, but you'd better not come hungry for much more because--true to today's starving artists--the table is pretty threadbare.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Judgment of Paris

Photo/Steven Schreiber

Three women dance into the decaying theater, vying for a golden apple. The first, Hera (Laura Careless), performs a short ballet, hoping to win the approval of Paris (Seth Numrich). The second, Athena (Yeva Glover), bursts into a short flapping jazz number, never mind the shimmery armor. But it is Aphrodite (Gioia Marchese), with her "give the audience what it wants" fan burlesque who wins the day. This, The Judgement of Paris, leads--through Austin McCormick's gracefully choreographed violence--to the rape of Helen (Elyssa Dole), that Everywoman, giving truth to the phrase "ravishing beauty."

McCormick's piece could not have found a better place than the Duo Theater, the sort of decayed Moulin Rouge-type place, gilded proscenium and all, that signifies the cost of maintaining beauty. The free Ferrero Rocher on every chair (an expensive type of cheap chocolate) and Olivera Gajic's slightly frayed can-can costumes are further extensions of that thought; Marchese's interpretation of Aphrodite as the Russian mistress of a brothel solidifies it. While these consistencies hold things together, McCormick (and his Company XIV ensemble) are free to giddily romp through their spin on Paris's story. And though they pull from several sources (including, rather appropriately, Chuck Mee's Agamemmnon 2.0), it's their own text, which creates the sort of coherent throughline that experimental works benefit from.

This doesn't mean that some of the images aren't confusing. For instance, it's unclear what Davon Rainey, cross-dressing as one of the frolicking "cupids" of the play, represents (though not to his discredit; his dancing is superb). However, given the clear theme, we can draw our own conclusions, as we do when ruffling skirts are made to seem like waves, or a slow sensual dance in the smoky dark can resemble a dance of fallen warriors, if the music and monologue give it such a context. Of course, the play is strongest when everything merges: when a single spotlight remains fixed on a befuddled Helen and the other dancers cruelly move her to the choreography, the result is heartbreaking.

McCormick has labeled The Judgment of Paris as "a dramatic entertainment." Thankfully, he has not tarnished the beauty of either one.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sixty Miles to Silver Lake

Photo/Monique Carboni

The thing about life--real life--is that it isn't full of dramatic moments. And when its drama overtakes us, it's rarely as well-spoken as it is in the theater. However, life is filled with plenty of regular moments, and some of the mundane stuff we say is pretty profound. In Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, Dan LeFranc brilliantly captures the relationship between a father and son in a series of photo-realistic snapshots, develops them over several years, and then shuffles them together for maximum exposure. Independently, these are quiet moments, ones that hint at Ky's unconscious insensitivity and show Denny's melancholy responses to his parent's divorce. But as a whole, they add up, with repeating lines serving as a reminder of how much and little the father-son relationship changes.

LeFranc's writing is outstanding. With Denny, he nails the run-on excitment and universal disdain of teenagers; with Ky, he's got his finger to the pulse of the awkwardly embarassing ways in which fathers try to stay hip and their attempts to stay in control. And while these characters are at once recognizable, they are never even remotely cliche: the dialogue is far too specific for that. Silver Lake's structure also keeps things fresh: all the scenes take place within a car, which surrounds even casual exchanges in a deeper level of intimacy. The aesthetic choices mirror the text, too: Dane Laffrey's set is recognizably a specific car, but at the same time, open enough to be any car, and Tyler Micoleau's lighting makes such subtle shifts that those who want to can note the precise demarcations in time while others can just enjoy a smooth, singular ride.

The show also benefits from top-notch directing and acting. Anne Kauffman, as usual, remains fixed on the human interactions: her deft ability to communicate a plausible weirdness saves the latter third of Silver Lake. As the show drifts into dreamy symbolism and broadens to show us Denny as a father, the set expands, preserving our sense of boundaries---the equivalent, in other words, of changing a flat tire while the car remains in motion. Dane DeHaan (Denny) and Joseph Adams (Ky) are more noticibly impressive, at odds one moment and best friends the next, but always consistently within their characters. As the father, Adams is more aware of his needs--they are rooted in a transcendentally youthful nostalgia ("The juice, dad!")--but DeHaan is equally virtuosic, communicating equally desperate needs without fully knowing what they are (something that frequent leads back to the embarassed old "I so wish you weren't my dad").

Don't let the small car and small scenes fool you: LeFranc's play has a lot of leg room, stretching out over seven years (though not in chronological order). You don't even have to worry about buckling up, not with Soho Rep. driving Sixty Miles to Silver Lake.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Krapp, 39

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

In Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, a 69-year-old man looks back at a life less than lived and throws himself a somewhat bitter birthday party, saying farewell to a life that is no longer his. Michael Laurence's riff on the subject, Krapp, 39, says hello to a life that he wishes to claim. At first, it's the character of Krapp, whose monologue he plans to record on stage and then use thirty years from now. But along the way, prodded by phone conversations with his friends (one assumes these are George Demas, and his off-stage collaborator, Jon Dichter), the play becomes an archival of his own life: as George puts it, the only thing that can be controlled--that is, lived--is the present, and the only thing that an actor can show--with or without a character--is something personal.

To that end, Laurence fills the stage with himself: objects from his past line a "tech" table along the back wall, two video cameras record this moment to represent his future, and an often handheld digital camera records his high-resolution present, the footage visible on a large flatscreen monitor off to stage left. Just like Krapp, none of these objects are passive: Laurence films his historical relics in slow, appreciative pans during the recorded moments, and instead of listening to a younger version of himself, he reads aloud diary entries and letters from the last ten years. Whether these pieces of the actor Laurence are fact or fiction is irrelevant--they feel real, particularly a birthday message from Mama.

Laurence's grant-worthy term for Krapp, 39 is "an autobiographical 'documentary' theater piece," but in truth, it is neither a history nor a premonition, and it is all the stronger for that. Krapp is a sort of shield, in which an actor can visit the deep themes of love and death and, especially, loss. Stripped of that role--"Take the character away from the actor and what does he have?"--and there's a far greater existential dread . . . and, as Beckett so wisely observed, a certain special comedy, too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Theatre Is Dead and So Are You

Photo/Carrie Leonard

Kiran Rikhye's Theatre Is Dead And So Are You pays vaudevillian homage to all the companies that have ever dragged a playwright back from the dead only to flog the corpse. So what if this troupe's leader, Leonard J. Sharpe (Tommy Dickie) is dead? Chester (the energetic Noah Schultz) and Edwin (an engrossed David Skeist) have decided to soldier on, knowing that good art is born from tragic deaths. It is, as they put it, "the best and only live dead theatre that twelve to eighteen dollars can buy."

The result is Weekend at Bernie's meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is to say that it's a crude (and quite successful) philosophical comedy. The best moments fully blend the two, as Chester puppets Leonard's body into "reviving" Romeo (just in time for his death scene). The worst moments get stuck in slapstick, as when Peggy (Julia Coe) kicks the dead horse of doubletakes, or in metadrama, like a digression on Tennessee Williams.

For the most part, Rikhye strikes a good balance, particularly in musical numbers like the delightfully upbeat "He Was Dead," and through the campy consistency of characters like the morbid Hazel (Liza Wade Green, channeling a PG Rocky Horror vibe) and earnest Harvey (David Berent). What would be character flaws, like the death-scene diva-ness of Florence (Alexia Vernon) or the professorial cluelessness of Roy (David Bengali) are instead turned into clever meditations on death. For instance, the chemical smell of death on ants leads to the conclusion that you ought to live and die to the fullest, for "anything in between is disturbing," and a game of Russian Roulette attempts to prove that "Once you know you're going to die, you'll feel like you can really live!"

The problem with doing all of this in the context of a vaudeville performance--"Death Defying Acts of Death Defiance"--is that 110 straight minutes of it get rather repetitive. Thankfully, the director, Jon Stancato, has gone out of his way to keep things fresh and visually stimulating. Not only does he use the entire Connelly Theater (including the wrap-around balcony, so be prepared to swivel), but he also uses darkness to create even more space to play in, and in doing so, makes the theater part of the play. This is as it should be, considering the not-so-subtle point: Theater Is Dead, but it cannot tell you so without being very much alive. Ultimately, even if you find the content to be cold and dead, the creativity of the Stolen Chair ensemble is quite alive and kicking.

What Sounds Cool: February 2009

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm (2/3 - 2/15)

This Beautiful City (2/3 - 3/15)

Telephone (2/6 - 2/28)

That Pretty Pretty; Or, The Rape Play (2/10 - 3/15)

Kaspar Hauser (2/13 - 3/28)

Soul Samurai (2/14 - 3/15)

Chautauqua! (2/21 - 3/15)

Synesthesia 2009 (2/25 - 2/28)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

metaDRAMA: What to Review?

Garret Eisler, who you all probably know as The Playgoer, recently put on his critic hat to make a great point about critical integrity--or the lack thereof in Claudia LaRocca's New York Times review of Wickets. (Eisler's is here, mine is here; there's also one by Helen Shaw, here.) What Garret takes exception to is mainly Claudia's glossing over the fact that this is an adaptation (she says "based on Maria Irene Fornes’s play 'Fefu and Her Friends'"), although he coats this with the (accurate) disclaimer that this may in fact be an editorial choice, to, as Eisler points out, make this more "the vox populi" review than the "expert" criticism.

In any case, where I come down on this issue--and here's a clear call for the authorial "I"--for, like Garret, I'm also unfamiliar with Fornes (which comes of being born in 1983). I think that if you have to research your criticism, you are distancing yourself from actually reviewing the play--what you actually saw is crowded out by an intellectual interpretation. However, I think liner notes (and there were many provided by Trick Saddle, not just in the press materials) are part of your experience of the play, for they are provided to the entire audience, and you can refer to them while still being "in the moment," so to speak, bridging the gap, then, between "expert" and "vox populi." Garret describes his process as reading a little about Fornes before seeing the show and then reading Fefu and Her Friends afterward; I did the same (although I'm technically one of those "uppity bloggers").

Our reviews, however, focus on very different things (and this is why I'm all for aggregates, as on Critic-O-Meter). I, for one, am all about the physical effect of the set (and the way this helps the intimacy of the show--and hence, the overall message), whereas Eisler speaks eloquently on the plot and style: "While interrupted by parodies of standard flight-attendant routines, much of Fornés's drama—about lonely affluent women seeking a safe space for female bonding and desire—remains." Shaw speaks to the feminist similarities (and differences): "Galilee and Rogers show us how surreptitiously awful our pre-Steinem days were—the women snatch conversations in cramped galleys or hiss them across passengers while offering pillows and warm nuts."

The real problem with LaRocca's review is how little it focuses on the actual play. It's not that she doesn't focus enough on the Fornes connection: it's that she doesn't deal with Rogers's adaptation. She describes the set, but not its effect (she spends more time talking about the entryway to the 3LD Arts & Technology Center). She calls the characters archetypes, but doesn't mention a single actress's performance by way of example. (This is a generic sort of writing that I think is far more crippling and dangerous in modern criticism.) In the worst line of the play, she dismissively renders one scene as "lesbian action" (even if she's a bit tongue-in-cheek) and then, irreverently, gives an example of that by quoting an audience member. Of all the things available to review, she chose the audience? Her third paragraph hints at what she's able to offer as a critic--it's a neat paragraph, one that accurately describes Wickets (so who cares if it doesn't kneel at Fefu's feet)--and her conclusion is pretty good: "Their secret lives, in the end, are not so different from our own."

I don't really agree when Mike Daisey says that LaRocca missed the thrust of the play; I just think she chose to describe what happened in, say, coach, rather than in business or first-class. (Which is actually rather appropriate, considering the environment of the play.) I just think that she spent so much time taxiing on the runway that it became hard for more critical readers to see her take off, and (to tie things full circle) that's why I'm so much in favor of being viscerally affecting writing (though I admit, I don't always succeed). The play's the thing, innit?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stranger's "Ten Things Theaters Need To Do"

I'm rather late to the punch, I know, but I rather liked Brendan Kiley's article, "Ten Things Theaters Need To Do Right Now To Save Themselves," especially after all this hoopla about Magic Theater and all the other companies going bankrupt. The thing I'm really behind is the same thing I'm hoping to do this year with my criticism, what I'll call the Ratatouille method: support what is new. I don't really want to support a theater company--with my money, time, or writing--that is doing another gimmicky modernization of a classic (there are exceptions; I love Red Bull and I'm seeing Hedda Gabbler). At the end of the day, much as I like the revivals done by The Mint, Gallery Players, and T. Schrieber Studios (to name a few), I would rather see new work at HERE and PS122, even if it happens to fail spectacularly.

I've got nothing against Chekhov and Ibsen (BAM and Classic Stage Company), and if it's a quality revival of a show that I've never actually seen on stage (like Blasted, which I think was technically a NY Premiere), I'd still go (and so I understand why theaters do revivals). But it's unfortunate that new writers have to compete against a deck stacked so heavily against them--even more so considering that the critics, who don't have to compete against their predecessors, often devote more space to the "new" old than what's actually new. So here's my vow to you struggling writers (and you prolific ones): if you write it, I will do my best to come. (I stipulate that you must, at least until someone underwrites me, have it produced in NYC.) I may not be able to save you by myself, but I'll damn well do my best to at least look your way and call out while you're drowning.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Under the Radar - "Call Cutta in a Box"

Photo/Rimini Protokoll

Call Cutta in a Box isn't a play, it's a theatrical reimagining of a pen pal program. Over the course of a focused forty-five minutes, you will go from the vague anonymity of a phone call with a Callcenter Service Representitive from Descon Limited to a more intimate conversation and teleconference. The structure is clearly scripted--the representitive refers to "scenes" and manipulates electronics (like the computer) from afar--but the content is unique.

It's a revealing experience--not so much an outsourcing of theater as an insourcing of cultural expectations. Regardless of how well they've faked an accent in an attempt to sell you something, chances are you've dismissively dealt with a call-center representative before (perhaps even one from Descon). Call Cutta in a Box reminds us of the humanity on the other side of that line, and in the process, reminds us of our own humanity, which is a fairly ambitious goal for a project like this. Everybody has a name, a face, and a story, and it's high time we started taking advantage of technological advances to hear more of them.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

COIL/Under the Radar - "The Crumb Trail"

Photo/Gavin Quinn

As any good storyteller knows, it isn't really what you have to say so much as how you say it. One step removed from that are the experimental storytellers, who don't know how to say what they have to say, but are damn well going to try anyway--instinctually, if they must (and they must). The Crumb Trail, Pan Pan's appropriation of Hansel and Gretel (and, by association, a culture of fairy tales), goes one step deeper into the woods, wonderfully losing its way in the process, for it no longer cares what it says, only what you say, though they'll certainly work their asses off in the process.

If this sounds like work, it isn't: Gavin Quinn's direction does most of the work for the audience, introducing a clever new technique every five minutes or so, and Gina Moxley's script begins by quoting from the critical response to previous performances and continues by citing from a wide variety of sources, Shakespearean and YouTubean. At first, Pan Pan mirrors these cultural touchstones from afar, mimicking the "Numa Numa" guy and the "Star Wars Kid" on stage and then in their own YouTube response videos. But by the midway point, they go through the looking glass, now doing on stage what they had only lipsynched before. In one of several ambient rock songs, the group aptly calls this "Deja Voodoo," for the fiction becomes reality just as easily as the reality becomes fiction. Pan Pan's presentation is wholly transparent, with the iBook's screen and the sound board facing the audience and the lights ingeniously handled by a row of transparency projectors, but does that make it involvingly real or distractingly fake?

As with this type of "dream theater," it hardly matters. Bush Moukarzel and Aoife Duffin are playing versions of themselves as much as of Hansel and Gretel; Gina Moxley introduces herself as the writer, but is also the mother and the witch; and Arthur Riordan isn't just a performer within the piece (the step-father): he coexists outside it, as when he reads from Hansel and Gretel. Sadly, Moxley's script gets the short schrift--not only is it presented in fragmented form, but it is overwhelmed by the vivid context (and perhaps by a few musical references that are too specific to Irish culture). And yet, at the same time, happily, Moxley's script gets the short shrift--the play is loosely contained by a parallel structure, but the story is ultimately left to us.

[Considering how open the interpretations are, descriptions seem inadequate. Perhaps knowing this, edited footage of Pan Pan's performances, including The Crumb Trail, can be seen here.]

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Under the Radar - "First Love"

Photo/Ros Kavanagh

Conor Lovett has to be one of the calmest performers ever to address an audience as cunts. It's an appropriately reserved attitude, for it fits the weary attitude of Samuel Beckett, and it smoothly blends with the disparaging comedy of even his "text" pieces (i.e., monologues), specifically First Love. Lovett has had a long time to perfect this; as an artistic director for the Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, he has purposefully immersed himself in the language so that audiences can wallow in Beckett's world without the fear of drowning. (You can listen to their adaptation of Beckett's radio plays here.)

First Love follows the narrative of a man looking back on his 25-year-old self's "marriage," or what is appropriately his first love. (Just to clarify the mood, that first line reads "I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.") The protagonist speaks of his affection for stillness and quiet, his apathy for the world, and disdain for the "vain perfumes" of mankind. Accordingly, with his father's protection inhumed, he is cast out. Eventually--because love, like erections, cannot always be controlled--he is taken in by Lulu (who he decides to call Anna), a prostitute. (On the subject of erections, Beckett puts it better: "One is no longer oneself, on such occasions, and it is painful to be no longer oneself, even more painful if possible than one is. For when one is one knows what to do to be less so, whereas when one is not one is any old one irredeemably.")

Because this is not one of Beckett's tersely managed plays, Mr. Lovett and his wife, director Judy Hegarty Lovett, have the opportunity to shake things up as they please. Unsurprisingly, given Beckett's consistent tone, they play it close to the belt. The set consists of two stacked benches and the lighting is just a despairing spotlight wide, all of which is fine for Mr. Lovett, who rarely moves and is at ease inhabiting the body of a man who despises action. As enjoyable as the long pauses and Mr. Lovett's quivering jaw are, we thankfully get his interior monologue as well, clearly spoken, but with the sort of intensity that comes not from force but from presence. Best of all are the surprising bits, as when Mr. Lovett cracks himself up at the thought of Anna disrobing for him so as to show him her round, pregnant belly. (To keep things in context, he is struck by how "the more naked she was the more cross-eyed" and a few lines later, offers her the thoughtful advice to "Abort, abort.")

Sometimes it seems that the smaller the scale, the more effective the tragedy, and with First Love, things can get no smaller or simpler than this: "Either you love or you don't." It's a bittersweet conclusion, but so far as drama goes, it's an entirely sweet production.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

COIL - "Trash Warfare"

I'm having some trouble expanding/collapsing the review below, so if anybody can help, great. The gist is, I accepted a press ticket to review "Trash Warfare," and then later learned--after posting the following review--that the show was not open to review. Considering that this would be cached anyway and possible to search out, I chose to add this disclaimer and to attempt to hide the review below, simply as a living record. (I'm also not sure why this, out of all the COIL Festival shows, is now "closed" to review, especially since the company has performed it for press at other venues.) In any case, if anyone knows how to hide the text below, please let me know.

Read the review...

It's hard to believe that a show could seem so dated, so quickly, but watching Trash Warfare, a revival of La Femme Est Morte (Or Why I Should Not F%!# My Son) is like watching Britney Spears during her "Blackout" phase. The pop-cultural reference is fair, considering that The Shalimar's production is a celebrified retelling of Seneca's classic Greek tragedy, Phaedra, assembled from found text and "classic" pop songs like "My Humps." Trash Warfare isn't exactly falling down on stage, but it's far from the energetic frenzy of a show that went to Edinburgh in 2007. That's a shame, for the ensemble's mania was what kept the show on its feet (think of the declining Fast and the Furious franchise).

Much as I'm loathe to frame it in non-theatrical context, America is different today and Trash Warfare is exactly the same. In 2007, more people may have visited YouTube for cheap shots of Britney than of war reportage from Iraq, but in 2008, Barack Obama was America's biggest celebrity (take that LOLcatz), and Britney was a recovering tragic hero. Writer/director Shoshona Currier has made a few cosmetic corrections, but the play has lost its punch--not great for a show that opens with some sparring, climaxes with a father/son boxing match, and cools down with some good old fashioned (exaggeratedly graphic) deaths.

What's still interesting about Currier's blend is the way in which the paparazzi and celebrities are equally shameless (the "chorus" girls walk around in gold lame; Phaedra flashes us, gorges on donuts, and takes care of her pilates all at once) and equally dependent (Phaedra's publicist "leaks" information to the press; the press "leaks" information to Theseus). The choreography is still clever, too, even if it's performed at half-speed--it manages to turn a crucifixion into a dance move. There's also something to be said for the physicalization of some of the more casual excerpts, something to be said for what happens when subtlety and tact are thrown out the window. Then again, if you shoot a celebrity in the forest and nobody cares, did it happen?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Under the Radar - "County of Kings: the beautiful struggle"

Photo/Nate Henry-Silva

Life is full of trade-offs: In the Heights sacrificed some of its realism for the sake of light hip-hop entertainment; Def Poet Lemon's County of Kings: the beautiful struggle has sacrificed some entertainment for the sake of heavy doses of reality. Lemon Anderson, the solo spoken-word performer, has a story to tell, but developer and director Elise Thoron hasn't helped him cut it down; this is a problem for an artist who is primarily known for his short, targeted poems. Over the course of two hours, he's bled a little dry: he's like a cross between Junot Diaz and John Leguizamo, except that he ends up with Diaz's energy and Leguizamo's language.

Luckily, the underlying story is pretty good, and so what if it treads the familiar plot of a troubled youth trying to make good for his mother: Lemon puts a spring in that step. What drags the show down is a soft and casual movement that belies the hard moments and specificity of details. Lemon never pops--he sticks with a lyrical swagger that prevents him from building and keeps him slightly hunched, as if he's trying to hold something back. Fair enough: it's a personal story, and when he imitates his Brooklyn neighbors and relatives, he shows that he can come out of that shell. Still, for audiences trying to jam to his beat, there's a wall that keeps his mother's AIDS at bay long after she's succumbed to the disease.

The subtitle of Lemon's show is worth noting: "the beautiful struggle." The show itself is still uneven--the first act, dealing with Lemon's childhood, is far more detailed than his vague drug dealing in the second--but the struggle, especially given Lemon's talent for "carjacking sonnets," is beautiful.

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 127-151)

Lyle (p. 127-128) is an enigmatic guru who (and this is a great description) "lives off the sweat of others. Literally. The fluids and salts and fatty acids." David Foster Wallace presents him like a little koan, that is, not quite rational, but somehow appropriate nonetheless. In this case, he also dispenses wisdom: "Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight." Perhaps there's something about the generation gap here, for the older students listen, weird as it may be, whereas the newer students, who think they know everything, are inevitably yanked off their feet by the shoulder-pull. Here's a question: is Hal the first-person narrator of this section?

yrstruly (p. 128-135) reads a lot like the Wardine section (p. 37-38)--which fits, since both mention the drug-dealing hoodlum Roy Tony. In any case, grammar-wise, it's like a mash-up of Burgess's Clockwork Orange and Selby's Last Exit From Brooklyn, with long block text and run on sentences meant to resemble the jittery, jonesing narrative of the protagonist as he, his friend C, and a tolerated transvestite named Poor Tony, go about the "Harvard Squar" area, "boosting" items and "crewing" on various marks (somewhat worse than a simple smash to the "map" but far less severe than the life-ending "elemonade"). This is definitely a section that's better when read aloud, especially since it has the uncanny ability to somewhat put you in yrstruly's shoes. (Personally, I wound up speaking in a slurred British accent.)

In any case, the story, which takes place on the day before "XMas," is a tale in which a man Poor Tony once screwed over, Dr. Wo, revenges himself by means of some tainted "skeet," except that because all the bad stuff yrstruly does is written in a different language--recontextualizing the violence--we actually feel worse for him than we should, particularly when he keeps repeating that [all sic] "its' a neverending strugle its' a full time job to stay straight and there is no vacation for XMas at anytime. Its' a fucking bitch of a life dont' let any body get over on you diffrent." The corroded semantics make us struggle to see the real world about as much as you expect yrstruly is struggling, and as a result, we empathize more. Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon, 2005, talks more about this; remember that the novel's despair is at heart all about fostering community, too.

Tension starts to mount as Orin brings up Separtism in a conversation with Hal (p. 135-137), he also mentions a girl he's met who could be very well be the Helen Steeply (p. 142-144) who has written an article in which a woman's heart--her actual Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial heart (and note how literal Wallace is, even with things that sound like metaphor, as quoted in that guru section earlier)--is snatched by Poor Tony. Building on that momentum, Wallace also lists the various Anti-O.N.A.N. groups (p. 144), and by now it should be clear that the O.N.A.N. is the merged result of the United States and Canada, much to Quebec's dismay. Wallace also starts to bring dates into focus: Hal's First Extant Written Comment (p. 140-142) is relevant more for the transitioning note that The Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken (in which Hal is in seventh grade) is one year after James's suicide; the intro to Steeply's article, as if it were a logic puzzle, explains that the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment is four years after James killed himself--by nuking his own head (in a toaster oven, in case you're taking me too literally).

A quick note on two sections I do not want to gloss over. The founding of Ennet House (p. 137-138) gets a write-up that is particularly hilarious for this line: "He sometimes, the founder, in the House's early days, required incoming residents to attempt to eat rocks--as in like rocks from the ground--to demonstrate their willingness to go to any lengths for the gift of sobriety. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Division of Substance Abuse Services eventually requested that this practice be discontinued." Get it? "Eventually" requested? Just goes to show you that there is a lot about addiction that we don't get. As for Dwayne R. Glynn's hilarious Workman's Compensation Claim (p. 138-140), bear in mind exactly what we are laughing at ("my def. of a bad day")--this is second-hand Schadenfreude at its most slapsticky.

Finally, Wallace provides a lengthy mediation on The Rise and Fall of Videophony (p. 144-151) that will forever ruin the 1999 short story by George Saunders, "I Can Speak!", simply on grounds of similarity. DFW creates yet another macrocosmic parable here, in which America rushes headlong into video-telephoning, only to discover that the more of themselves they reveal, the more stressed they get, and that in actuality, they prefer the anonymity of phones, in which they can pretend to listen but feel, completely, that the person on the other line is totally listening to them. The entire thing is couched in tech-speak, but it nails our consumer culture, our sheepish behaviors, our vanity, and eerily predicts the rise of panagoraphobia as it becomes easier and easier for Americans to live their entire lives without ever going out. (In Japan, this is called "hikikomori." I've been fascinated with this ever since I read about it.)

Under the Radar - "LIGA, 50% reward & 50% punishment"

Photo/Klaas Paradies

Kids will be kids, but it's quite another thing when adults can be kids. Especially when it's done believably so. LIGA, 50% reward & 50% punishment ought to be retitled "100% risk & 100% reward," for this "liga" (Dutch for "league") of actors, the theater-initiative Kassys, has stepped out on a very fragile limb and captured the attention of an audience that has largely forgotten how to play. If there is a fountain of youth, Kassys has tapped it: such spontaneity, purity of behavior, and intense make-believe is rarely seen onstage.

If one requires a plot, LIGA follows the cast as they grow from individual children, each playing with whatever props they find in whichever way they please, into a group working together to make a barbecue (a rather ingenious example of group-think), and finally into an older group, one that now substitutes clever puns for cleverer actions. But the play works fully as an engaging exploration of human interaction, right down to the scolding supervision of Klass Paradies, who tries to rein in the more dangerous recreations of scaffold-hanging Marc Stoffels, or the unconscious sexuality of Willemijn Zevenhuijzen. These are outstanding actors, from the pride Harm van Geel finds in a belt that he finds, to the attention-starved nuance (or lack thereof) in Thijs Bloothoofd, not to mention the shy meanderings of the creative Esther Snelder.

Even the filmed opening of LIGA seems natural; there's a sparkle in the close-up eyes of the cast as they are caught on camera awkwardly leaving the stage; contentedly celebrating with the director, Liesebeth Gritter; and then abashedly exiting the theater with their families. There is, in fact, such an cohesive aura to this group that even when the film notes "One hour earlier" and rolls up the projection screen to reveal the live set (and, one by one, the actors), there isn't a hint of artifice. It is pretendious, not pretentious.

Monday, January 12, 2009

COIL - "Eight"

We draw our own conclusions about the eight young men and women of Eight before they even say a word. That's partially why the writer and director, Ella Hickson, has them stand in a silent line as the audience files in. They don't remain blanks for long: each has a monologue—the theatrical form of the short story—and over the course of the next few hours, they'll share them. At the Edinburgh Fringe, audiences voted for the four stories they most wanted to hear; given the somber tone, it's actually a relief to not have to choose. Instead of coming across as a jaded for a 23-year-old, the cumulative effect of all eight monologues is a wintergreen breath of fresh air.

It's a little ironic, because while Hickson's characters are trying to find a place for themselves, she's established herself as a darkly comic playwright. She's also a social critic, using Millie's (Ishbel McFarlane) "marital supplements" business to declaim a feminism that she doesn't see as freeing and Miles (Solomon Mousley), a survivor of the 7/6/05 London bombings, to say that it's more important to have something to dream for than to have everything you dream of. The suicide of André's (Michael Whitham) boyfriend is used to comment on the insidious loss of identity created by a homogenized homosexuality; the glory of following his father's military legacy only reminds Danny (Henry Peters) that he wants something else. The one optimistic monologue comes with a disclaimer: Bobby (Holly McLay), a working class 22-year-old single mother of two, will need magic—that created by determination—to make Christmas better than real life.

Eight was a rushed-to-Fringe project, but by now, the actors have settled magnificently into their roles—particularly McLay, whose frustration is palpable, and Simon Ginty, whose portrayal of Jude ranges from a naïve 17-year-old boy dreaming of "bikinis" to that of an obsessed teen on the brink of sexual discovery and finally to that of a post-coital, disillusioned man. Some of the monologues remain a little too written—Mona (Alice Bonifacio) is driven by her mother's bohemian recklessness into the comfort of stricter religion and Astrid (Gwenie Von Einsiedel) cheats on her husband so as to beat him to the punch—but only comparatively speaking. As for the language, it is consistently stunning: "The house became a big, toothless mouth, with gaping gaps where all the doors had been" and "Her cheap knickers on the floor, you like to think they're cheap—they're probably not, they are probably more expensive, more see through, more size eight than yours have ever been."

Eight is an impressive premiere that establishes Hickson as one of those people who is not only good at listening but good at hearing, and it is a pleasure to see that empathy echoing through even her saddest monologues.

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 109-127)

Well, after a rather lucky thirteen parts of blogging to date, I've decided to change my method of taking notes, needing this to remain a blogthrough and not a slogthrough. In any case, of real note in Downtime (cont.) (p. 109-121), we spend some time with the older tennis players and trickling down through them, with some of the younger ones. Not only does this structure form a sort of microcosm of the novel's widening leaps, but it also gives a good idea for Wallace's ease of characterization, his use of "authenticating details" (i.e., details that do more than describe; details that have a kick or some life to them).

We know very little of Kent Blott, Peter Beak, Evan Ingersoll, or Idris Arslanian, save that they are under Hal's supervision, and that Ingersoll isn't really, at least not originally, but was just so annoying to Pemulis that Hal traded 'little buddies' with him to prevent violence (a violence that he now feels himself, mainly for the way that Ingersoll reminds him of himself). However, as Hal speaks about E.T.A.'s frat-like system of unity through suffering, we see, in the way that they each respond and interact to this information, exactly what they are like.

Wallace is not only dispensing a valuable philosophical concept, but he's advancing his characters, too, who are, more or less, the "plot" of this novel. That this often happens to be done in a comedic fashion, too, is really just the feather in the cap: "Arslanian always has a queer faint hot-doggish smell about him," which fits the image his backward yet serious English bestows upon him; "Ingersoll's face is completely devoid of eyebrows and is round and dustily freckled, not unlike a Mrs. Clarke pancake," which also fits with the way he goes about seeking recognition; Blott has "colored shoelaces on his sneakers with 'Mr.-Bouncety-Bounce-Program'-brand bow-biters," which is appropriate for his whining; and Beak, despite being asleep (and comic relief) has a tragic flair in the way he suddenly cries out "God no not with pliers!"

Hal is speaking, throughout all of this, on the subject of structure, and how organization tells us where we stand at any given moment. Even the seemingly unstructured bits are designed with a sense of community in mind:

They give themselves up to our dislike, calculate our breaking points and aim for just over them, then send us into the locker room with an unstructured forty-five before Big Buddy sessions. Accident? Random happenstance? You guys ever see evidence of the tiniest lack of cooly calculated structure around here?
I said in my initial thesis that we had to take Wallace's genius as a given, and therefore--as goes the first syllogism--that we had to accept that each section was intentional. In that case, if the scenes are cut up, and if we are thrown into things in media res, then it's simply Wallace wanting to break down our idea of community, first and foremost, into the individual, before he can pull back and point out the threads that actually connect us all. Even if we never actually see how it all ties together, there are enough parallels and concepts to let us do the rest; we are, in relation to the book, part of that togetherness of loneliness. (And is there anything more simultaneously addicting and solipsistic than reading?)

In any case, the rest of this section is great, highlighting Wayne's solemnity, Pemulis's con artistry, Schacht's obsession with hygene, Troeltsch's machine-like sickness, Struck's insightfulness (even about farts), and Stice's patriotic spiels, all while overlapping the sections so that it's clear once more exactly how much goes on at once.

The other section here, Mario Incandenza's First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far (p. 121-126) is another section masquerading as about one character when it's really about another (like the doctor's narrative during the earlier Kate Gompert bit). This time, we see--through physically and socially awkward Mario's eyes--the way in which Millicent Kent (a woman so large she's referred to as the "heaving" U.S.S. Millicent Kent) goes about her unhappiness, despite being ranked #1 Singles. As that Cuban orderly on page 16 foreshadowed ("So yo then man what's your story?"), there's more than meets the eye, and it turns out that the U.S.S.M.K. has fled to E.T.A. simply to get away from her cross-dressing "Old Man, which you can just tell she capitalizes." She confides these things in Mario--perhaps because she knows he won't understand, and therefore won't be able to hurt her.

There's something very lonely about this whole scene, and that's that just because people are physically connected, that doesn't mean they are mentally so, especially when they do not understand one another. Extending that a step further, perhaps there's hope yet for our Internet age in which people, despite not being physically connected, can still find ways to stimulate themselves and enjoy one another's company.

Words looked up: apercu, boscages, eidetic, murated

Under the Radar - "the break/s: a mixtape for stage"

Photo/Umi Vaughn

Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, but in Soulati's preshow pump-up for the break/s: a mixtape for stage, hardly a creature was stirring. Moreover, his questions to the audience drew a lot of blanks, such as the honest reply from one woman that she didn't know much about hip hop--that's why she was here. After all, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the solo performer, is the artistic director of The Living Word Project, and he works to teach important social issues, like, I guess, hip-hop, to audiences.

In other words, it was the wrong sort of audience, but moreover, it was the wrong sort of teacher. Joseph's talented, as he demonstrates in his verbal and physical patters, but he's operating at another level, and his "mix tape"--an assortment of clips from his life experience--doesn't come with any liner notes. We can follow the physical actions--he lies on the floor, in a spotlit outline of a vinyl record; a stage-right Soulati plays drums, a stage-left DJ Excess mixes the beats, and images spin across three screens. But when it comes time to understanding the message, it's all scratched up and distorted: what opens with insightful comments on the double identity of the black artist who must either assimilate or assail turns into a dream sequence in which Prince describes the true story of the Mona Lisa. Joseph's trip to Africa cuts off before it becomes eye-opening so that it can spin into the time he wasted an opportunity to interview Jay-Z in 1996; this mix of the good and bad, meaningful and irrelevant makes the sampling frustrating.

Perhaps Joseph has taken one of the lines from his show to heart: "Real love is what you do, not what you say." There is, after all, no denying his sweating passion for the subject, or his dedication to the craft, a dedication that gives him a certain skill at spitting. But if actions do speak louder than words, then the words you choose need to be even more precise: the break/s is just an unedited passion project.

Under the Radar - "Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first"

Photo/Tim Etchells

If genes--physical code--make up what we are, then can fragmented thoughts--mental code--make up who we are? Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first is an interesting experiment, executed by Tim Etchells's rough assemblage of short, simple sentences (facts, opinions, thoughts) being processed through Jim Fletcher's body and voice. However, as with most experiments, it is rigidly controlled, to the point where it hardly seems as if there is anything natural left, and the artistic choice to restrict movement and emotion results in a dead recitation that, while abstractly funny, embodies nothing.

"Motel rooms are too small," he'll say, and then follow it with, "Sometimes bridges fall down." Don't be misled by what appear to be chunks of meat in the text--"One deception leads to another"--for while there's an acceleration, there's never a climax or resolution. It's an impressive feat of memorization, but that's hardly what an actor wants to be remembered for. However, because Mr. Fletcher has not been allowed a personality for this show, we can only admire the technical aspects of the production. And even that's troubling, for the craft of this show hardly need Fletcher or even, really, Etchell's writing--any sliced-up stream-of-consciousness will do.

"Anything can be said, using words" is one of the lines. That's true. But our genes are not what create us, nor are our thoughts what define us. No, what makes us, ultimately, are our limits: without those, there is nothing to define.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Under the Radar - "England"

Photo/Martin Kaufhold

Should a critic ever tell you that your style isn't working, they don't mean "quit," they mean "make it work." When Tim Crouch brought An Oak Tree here in 2006, his spartan style was hurt by his gimmick, which forced him to "hypnotize" a new actor each night for an unbalanced pas de deux. His new piece, England, also uses a gimmick, splitting the monologue of a woman dying of a myocardial infarction between two actors, himself and Hannah Ringham, and setting the whole piece in an art gallery (here it's the hidden treasure of the Chelsea Art Gallery).

Location, location, location, as they say, and it's true, for the art--a passion of the protagonist and her unseen boyfriend--fills in the emotions that these neutral performers withhold. In the echoes of the large gallery space, the text overlaps and starts to resemble a heartbeat. A brilliant ambient sound design by Dan Jones helps to add a throbbing intensity to the show, one heightened by the effect of standing up for the first half of the show. Just as photographs cannot capture the layers on a canvas, neither can a description of the pointedly flat script evoke the three-dimensional effect.

The second part is more traditional, with the audience seated. The protagonist has receieved a heart transplant, and has come to thank the donor's wife for this bittersweet gift of life. Crouch starts as the "hero," with Ringham playing the passive translator, but the two soon seamlessly swap, evoking between them the unseen third character, a veiled Muslim woman, grieving for the husband she believes to have been murdered for a rich English woman. Because of all the restraint up until this point (and because of the standard dictation of a translator), the emotion that now bursts out of Ringham is doubly effective. What in Part I was the repeated request to "look" is now overtaken by the demanded "tell," though both are attempts to communicate a similar idea: "Thank you. If it were not for you, I would not be here."

It's a little ironic that Crouch, who is such a rigid writer and performer, begins England in a gallery for Jean Miotte, an "Informel" artist who sought an international language by painting formless shapes that would still be filled with meaning. Then again, isn't tragedy an international language in of itself?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Shipment

According to Young Jean Lee's bio, everything she does is calculated to keep the audience off-balance. Further, she specifically writes about topics that discomfort her, with the intent of challenging the audience. So what does it mean that her latest production, The Shipment, which is ostensibly about latent racism, is so tame? Or is it more subtle than the modern minstrelry, stereotypical stand-up routine, exaggerated depictions of rap life, and overall punchlines lead us to believe? That is, is race so ingrained in the way we see and think about things that our mind cannot be altered, that it refuses to be surprised or shocked? Or, better yet, are we so convinced that race is ingrained in the way we see and think about things that we force ourselves to look for sinister drama where there is none?

That's a lot of questions to ask of a play, which is why Lee's The Shipment may ultimately be more subversive than, say, Thomas Bradshaw's Southern Comfort, which very clearly and methodically told us exactly how to feel. Though Lee uses many of the same exaggerated comic devices in her work, The Shipment is entertaining and surprising, so should we feel guilty? It depends on how meta-theatrical the audience wants to get, on how exploitative it thinks Lee is actually being in her minstrelization of an urban dance routine (Mikeah Ernest Jennings and Prentice Onayemi, complete with smiles and half-assed wall jumps) or in the dead-on stand-up routine that Douglas Scott Streater (the scene stealer) delivers, in which he imitates and mocks white people as well as stupid black attitudes. There are moments of surprise in each of these: Is Mikeah embarrassed for Prentice and himself when he first comes out, or just putting on a show? Is Douglas seriously trying to get through to white people, or is it part of the act? More dangerously, are both true?

The finished product is so slick that even the more cryptic moments--an a capella rendition of Modest Mouse's "Dark Center of the Universe" (which I guess is mined for the way in which anyone, black or white, can "equally easily fuck you over")--are enjoyable. It's so slick, in fact, that the two longer vignettes--one a reductive glimpse at the Adventures of Would-Be-Rap-Star Omar and His Battles With Adversity, the other a half-serious comedy about a dinner party gone wrong--come across as pure gloss. The former is a grotesque: by the end, Omar is doing five or six lines of coke, and though it's clear that Lee is doing a pastiche of "thug life" it goes on so long that it no longer seems exploitative so much as redundant. As for the latter, it's awkwardly funny, but the payoff seems a little crude, comparatively.

A masochistic audience wishes for actual discomfort, for that leads to a resolved catharsis that helps them sleep at night. Lee denies this "happy" ending by putting on a happy show, albeit one that makes you wonder whether or not the smiles are just painted on. (The curtain call could have been used far more aggressively.) However, based on the theatrical work and the talented actors, The Shipment is worth any potential feelings of guilt.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 87-109)

PART TWELVE-------------------------------------

One of the greatest lessons authors should learn from David Foster Wallace is how to manage exposition. Actually, no, he doesn't manage exposition by simply ignoring it--it just seems that way because he so slickly provides us with information, all while constantly moving forward. It reminds me of a reality show challenge I once saw in which contestants had to find clues in an amusement park--by looking down from a roller coaster. Everything you need is there, it's just not always obvious, and when it is obvious--that is, when we are thrown the bone--it is entertaining.

Case in point, Wallace's introduction to Marathe and M. Hugh Steeply (p. 87-95, 105-109). In this section, things start being spelled out: namely that Incandenza's film (presumably Infinite Jest V), which they now call "the Entertainment" has been used either as a terrorist attack or as a sick joke, which is why Steeply, an agent of the Office of Unspecified Services, is questioning his agent, Marathe, an agent of the Quebocois terror cell Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (Wheelchair Assassins). The two discuss the death of the terrorism-coordinator Guillaume DuPlessis (who Don Gately accidentally killed back on p. 59), and touch on the unfortunate death of the medical attache (and his wife, and the neighbors, and the Seventh Day proselytizers, and the first responders, and so forth), a plot point that is now, at last, resolved. (Interesting that plots really only ever seem to end end in death.)

Of course, none of these seems like exposition, because Wallace has wrapped it all up in a satire of spy novels. First off, Marathe is a triple agent (and potentially a quadruple agent): sent to infiltrate the B.S.S. (French for the O.U.S.) by the A.F.R. (there's a reason Wallace uses so many abbreviations), he instead actually works for the B.S.S., pretending, in other words, to pretend. Second, the language is terse, informational stuff, stripped from crime novels, only rendered far more humorous here on account of Marathe's less-than-great grasp on U.S.A. English (and Wallace, a grammatical person, is right to distinguish). Finally, there's the biggest divertissment of them all: despite meeting in the middle of nowhere, the B.S.S. has forced Steeply to arrive in disguise, a disguise that is a grotesqued approximation of a woman: "Steeply's eyes were luridly made up," reads one section, and then, "The B.S.S. operative had perspired also through his rouge, and his mascara had melted to become whorish." As if that weren't enough, Wallace then takes potshots at Steeply's accesorizing: "A large odor of inexpensive and high-alcohol perfume came not from Steeply's person but from his handbag, which failed to complement his shoes."

Not only is there constant action neatly breaking up the dialogue, but it's filled with slapstick comedy, too. I mentioned in an earlier post that there were a lot of similarities between Wallace and James Incandenza . . . consider further, then, that both have created an "Entertainment" that is rather hard to put down.

PART THIRTEEN-------------------------------------

Another clever device Wallace uses to suck the reader in is in the use of tricky language. By using more complicated words, we have to change our mindset, much like those old visual games where you'd have to identify an object by looking at an extreme close-up. The effect is that when we at last decode the image, we are staring so close at it that it literally smacks us in the face, and provkes an emotional response (or at least an empathetic one). Not through the heart, mind you, but through the brain, which is what's so truly accomplished about it.

In any case, Downtime (p. 95-105) is our first casual look at the students of E.T.A., namely Hal and the other 18-and-Unders, plus a few incidental 14-and-Unders who have been entrusted in a Little Buddy sort of way to the older, more accomplished students. The section is about as pure a slice of life as they come, with Wallace explaining years of Jr. tennis preparation through some of the most mundane--and therefore globally applicable--descriptions of locker room antics. They bitch about their coursework, they break each other's balls, they go through their own little rituals and routines, and it's all just one more day in the game. Listen:

To a man, now, the upperclassmen are down slumped on the locker room's blue crush carpet, their legs straight out in front of them, toes pointing out at that distinctive morgue-angle, their backs up aganist the blue steel of the lockers, careful to avoid the six sharp little louvered antimildew vents at each locker's base.
These are some vividly different ways to describe things that are so utterly similar, when it comes right down to it. Another example: "One semion that still works fine is holding your fist up and cranking it with the other hand so the finger you're giving somebody goes up like a drawbridge." Does cursing get any classier than that? And yet, isn't that exactly what we do? All this, of course, the technical care and precision with which Wallace addresses childishly casual moments, is funny in of itself--but it echoes within us like a deep booming laugh in the caverns of the soul because it is also true.

In this manner, Wallace also gets away with a lot of digressions. If these seem like tangents, of course, unrelated to the novel, then: (1) you are simply reading for plot and have come to the wrong book, (2) you are missing the point, which is that everything is ultimately connected. And so then but yes, the section that first alerts us to the . . . pains of Schacht's Crohn's Disease, is on the humbling humanity of defectation: be it Martin Luther or the Pope, everyone has found themselves in the "defecatory posture," an "almost religious" pose. This shit, in other words, isn't bullshit: it's the cornerstone of understanding all that we have in common, much like when we were introduced to the medical attache's hypocritical vices way back on page 33. It's also, for what it's worth, a narrative style that Wallace will come to perfect in his nonfiction, as he takes on assignments and then spins them larger, ever larger, making each piece infinitely more than the sum of its parts.

Words looked up: specular, uremia, pedalferrous, fulvous, qua, ephebe, quiesent, carminative, creosote

COIL/Under the Radar - "Architecting"

Photo/Eamonn McGoldrick

The four distinct sections of Architecting, the TEAM's latest look at America, never satisfyingly cohere--at least, not as elegantly as in their metaphoric Chartres Cathedral--but at least they've got a term for it: thermodynamic history. This free-associative interpretation of events allows them to convert, conflate, and merge Americana, throwing it together in the hopes of creating something altogether new. The energy is there, but the frame of Architecting is so much larger than that of their last, the more centralized Particularly in the Heartland, that a lot of that hard work goes up in a puff of confusedly entertained smoke.

After a folksy musical pre-show introduction, the show introduces its layers: first, the present, in which Kerry (Libby King), an child genius mourning her father's death, comes to demolish what remains of a neighborhood in New Orleans so that she can complete her father's TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development). Instead, she discovers a group of transients, including Henry Adams (Jake Margolin, channeling Jeff Goldblum), a thermodynamic historian, and Margaret Mitchell (an attitudinal Jessica Almasy), you know, the long-dead author of Gone With the Wind. From here, the play jumps into the fictive universe of Scarlett O'Hara (the always charming Kristin Claire Sieh) before being co-opted by the unscrupulous Hollywood producer, Scott (Frank Boyd), and then, in Act II, lovingly remembered by a Scarlett Pageant competitor, Caroline (Sieh), and Joshua (Boyd), a Sonoco station manager, both positively touched by the novel, despite some of the controversy associated with it.

The question raised by Architecting is a good one: not "Why have we built this?" but "What have we built?" for with the passing of time, the utility of objects is thrown into flux. This is what leads to a battle between Mitchell's intent and Scott's appropriation, with Kerry's constructive destruction (or destructive construction) stuck in the middle, and Caroline and Joshua's interpretation watching from the fringe. Each takes their own inspiration from the past, being transformed (literally so--corsets abound) by what they claim as their own.

Under Rachel Chavkin's well-orchestrated direction, the visual result is similar to that of the Elevator Repair Service; the difference is that while ERS's flair is rooted solidly in language, the TEAM is hardly going by the book (let alone word for word). In any case, it makes for an exciting romp, driven by a cohesive ensemble and lacking only a follow-through for the audience. While Architecting fulfills the TEAM's definition of architecture ("that the building have a strong sense of identity"), what with all the moving walls and gaping plot holes, it's not easily inhabited by the average theatergoer.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 68-87)

PART TEN-------------------------------------

The sad introduction to Katherine Ann Gompert (p. 68-78) lets Wallace jump back on his central obsession with addiction. The entire interaction here is worth noting, for the psych ward's MD-in-training spends just as much time analyzing himself as he does the third-time's-the-charm unipolar suicide victim. Wallace speaks through the doctor's free-indirect style because this enables him to mock therapy at the same time as he embraces it. Once more, it comes down to a matter of perception and communication, and this is mocked too: "The doctor decided that her open display of irritation with him could signify either a positive thing or nothing at all" and "The doctor had no ideas about what this observation might indicate." In fact, even this so-called humor is mocked, too, or at least called to attention:

She did not understand the strict methodological limits that dictated how literal he, a doctor, had to be with the admits on the psych ward. Nor that jokes and sarcasm here were usually too pregnant and fertile with clinical significance not to be taken seriously: sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care [sic] and help them.
Given the nature of Infinite Jest and the way Wallace would end his life 11 years down the road, it's hard not to read this as a reflection of Wallace's own dark comedy in which whimsical things ("curious hair," "supposedly fun things") often turned to minute tragedies. Hell, just look at the way DFW riffs on the slang usage of "Hope" for "marijuana." A few other things:
  • Kate's whole routine of "Do They Know, Can They Tell" comes across very much like Erdedy's need for isolation (as does their shared fixation on junking all of their equipment after every "last time") and like Hal's (especially when Kate talks about standing on a toilet seat and blowing into a cobwebbed grate).
  • Kate uses "And so but then" herself; Wallace goes on to use this throughout most of his work, and it's an effective way of conversationally segueing while at the same time showing that the narrator is grasping for the transition that will at last allow them to put their finger on the elusive subject.
  • It is not the feeling of addicition that troubles Kate so much as the awareness of the feeling and the presence of mind this comes with. She wants isolation, ultimately, not just from those around her, but from herself, too, asking to be shocked or put into a medical coma, a place where even she will not know. You can very well know too much.
PART ELEVEN-------------------------------------

Another quick check-in on the attache (p. 78-79): his wife is now watching the loop, too. For what it's worth, if this is Infinite Jest, it must be Infinite Jest V, for IV is recorded at 90 min., and not enough time has elapsed for the whole looping to be necessary. That's nitpicking though; of note is how cleverly Wallace has created suspense that is sustained even when interrupted, a "straight line" theory that is about to come up in the next section, an introduction to head coach Schtitt (p. 79-85).

The theory advanced here follows up on the earlier tennis dream, but speaks of the straight line (as the shortest distance between two points) as a Euclidean myth, for what about when things are in the way? One way to read Infinite Jest, which has an admittedly mathematical structure (Sierpinski Gasket), is to see Wallace as forcing the novel to keep going in a straight line, even when it hits the unavoidable intereferences of life--his plowing straight through those other sections is what, hilariously, makes the novel seem as if it is not straightforward. Of course, the world is not flat, so there's another way to read this:
Locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. [Schtitt s]eemed intuitively to sense that it was a matter not of reduction at all, but--perversely--of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth--each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, n^2 possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.
Damn straight that's dense. If you're going to give away the structure of the book, you can't just slap a spoiler alert on it and spell the damn thing out. It's true that I may be trying to mold the book to the initial view I took of it, but the whole gist of the above is that it's about transcending your own limits, thereby growing internally so that while the boundaries remain positioned the same distance from you that they began, your sense of scale has now altered to the point at which those lines are now much, much further away. 1,000 grams are equivalent to 1 kilogram, but there is room for 1,000 individual grams when you look that closely, and room only for 1 kilogram.

We are always playing ourselves, so consider what happens when you turn a character's observations in on themselves: as I noted in Kate's section above, she is actually seeking to hide her addiction from herself, though she manifests it as hiding it from others; from what we know of James, he sought to hide from his own neuroses by projecting them onto others (and then into film; perhaps so many of his works were unfilmable because there was no way to manifest his internal terrors, akin to Hal's nightmare). If we're dealing with depression alongside addiction, what is it that these people are all really afraid of? The world? Or themselves? Is Infinite Jest V, then, the realization of that escape?

As always, let me leave on a smaller note--in this case, with the arrival of Tiny Ewell (p. 85-87), who is, in fact, tiny (and on his way to detox). Not much of note here, save that where we had "howling fantods" before, we now have "screaming meemies."

Words looked up: plangent, synclinal, leptosomatic, aleatory, diagnate(?)


There are no seatbelts on the mock airplane set of Jenny Rogers’s adaptation of Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu & Her Friends. None are needed: Wickets is engaging and smooth, but it’s hardly dramatically turbulent. Nor should it be: by sticking to the surfaces, co-directors Rogers and Clove Galilee are being true to the eight stewardesses on Wicket Air Flight #1971. (The feminist content has been updated from 1935 to 1970.) The deeper truths come out in loose yet cryptic monologues, and through an interpretation of Fornes’s experimental style that collages text and breaks out into song and dance.

Because none of the women can identify what they lack, Wickets is largely without conflict. However, it is saved from gimmicks by the physical confines of the set: there is nowhere for the actresses to hide, which accentuates even the smallest and most silent action. It also personalizes the ethereal angst: even if you don’t follow Fefu (Lee Eddy) as she talks about a constant pain (“It’s not physical, and it’s not sorrow . . . it’s as if normally there is a lubricant . . . a spiritual lubricant”), her claustrophobic sobs are clear.

The play is most successful in Part II, which divides the plane into three smaller sections (Coach, Business, First), and grounds itself in naturalism. If your heart goes out to Paula (Elizabeth Wakehouse), as she waxes over her failed affair with Cecilia (Jona Tuck), it does not have far to travel. It’s easier to empathize with Sue (Kristen Rozanski), who sexually represses, and Christina (Katie Apicella), a timid conformist, when they’re inches away. It’s really a disservice to reduce these women to labels, given the rich complexity with which the actresses embody them.

In the end, Wickets is more of a feeling than a play, but the impressions formed by this hundred-minute flight are more than filling. It’s like Sue says: “I’ve had it explained to me a thousand times, why a plane stays in the air, but the scientific facts simply won’t do. It’s purely a miracle.” Somehow, despite a singing angel, retro wicket match, tufts of grass, water-gun fight, and in-flight movie, Wickets stays in the air.

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 55-68; 985-993)

PART EIGHT-------------------------------------

With the introduction of the beefy junkie-burglar Don Gately (p. 55-60), we begin a new year (Year of Daily Products from the American Heartland) but revisit an old theme: the dangerous and tragic fallability of language. When we fail to understand what is being communicated (a point I touched on briefly back at the beginning of this blogthrough), we live, essentially, in a different world, a different reality. Case in point: the only difference between burglary and robbery is that the latter involves violence (or the threat thereof), something which Gately accidentally stumbles into when he mistakes the adenoidal Quebecoian pleas of his congested victim's pleas ("Do not gag me, I have a terrible cold, my nose she is a brick of the snot, I have not the power to breathe through the nose, for the love of God please do not gag my mouth") as something far less human--"the cries of, say, North Shore gulls or inland grackles."

The result is horribly vivid, which potentially explains the rather dry and technical section that follows (p. 60) in which the stats of a tricked-out InterLace system (although Wallace is stuck with the term "CD-ROM," consider this the equivalent of the entertainment console from Idiocracy) go side by side with the results of those "killer apps": namely, "carpal neuralgia, phosphenic migraine, gluteal hyperadiposity, lumbar stressae." How's that for a punchline? (He's not far off, either.) His subtle anti-technology spiel here--for technology is just the ultimate enabler for our addictions--hits a high with this line, too: "screen so high-def you might as well be there." I mean, if you might as well be there, then why not just be there?

In fact, the next few sections slowly back away from the graphic horror of the Gately scene, though they actually link--our introduction to Troeltsch (p.60-61), a classmate of Hal's, comes while he is in the midst of his own rhinovirus, and his daydreaming segues directly into another of Hal's recurring nightmares. Given the repetition of symbols (like Toblerone) that I touched on last time, I'm now wondering if Wallace is hinting at some sort of collective unconscious in this elaborately expanding narrative which, as it grows larger, more and more encompasses life.

As for this Untitled Dream Sequence (p. 61-63), it gives me a moment to catch my breath and observe a few things about Wallace's stylistic habits. (1) Dude likes to place his antecedents after the pronoun: "How fast it came on, the illness." Valid, but uncommon, which suggests that he's writing for the rhythm of the sentence, not just the syntax of it. This fits in with his playful "And but so then" sort of openings. (2) Dude likes to disorient us. Since I've chosen to accept that what he does is intentional, then note that he leaps to a footnote in #22--but then explains the same joke ("nuclear-grade antihistimines") on the next page; also, the footnote for #21 references a footnote much later in the text, which I guess tells us something about the depth, length, and overall dimensionality of this work. And I guess (3) is just another reference to our perceptions, for in the dream, Hal notes that "Whatever it is is not evil for them." What, then, is evil? What, then, is addiction? I suspect we'll find out.

PART NINE-------------------------------------

Speaking of perceptions, the crux of this section is not the highly informative look at James O. Incandenza (p. 63-65), Hal's father, officially spoken of here, but The Filmography (p. 985-993). This is one of my favorite sections yet, and could stand alone as an experimental short story, given not just the style, humor, and level of description, but for the look it gives us of the man trapped behind the films. In conjunction with the novel itself, it's way deep, but here are the main things of note:

- James dies in Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, presumably when Hal is 11 (given that the two chronological years preceding it are the starts--in 1998?--of Subsidized Time: Year of the Whopper and the book's beginning year, Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad).
- If we believe the biographical skew of his films ("It Was a Great Marvel that He Was in the Father Without Knowing Him" references the Professional Conversationalist scene), then James (and genetically, possibly Hal) has suffered a temporal lobe seizure.
- His work in optical physics has led to technological breakthroughs, like cold annular fusion, but he has ceded all commercial rights to his wife (even though he suspects she had an affair with her Ubermensch architect friend, A. Y. Rickey from #3, p. 983).
- Perhaps driven (or driving) the spider phobia of his father and roach phobia of his oldest son, James is fascinated by light and by pain.
- Excessive persperation (like Orin's) is referenced as a subject of several films.
- His company ends up being called "Poor Yorick Entertainment."
- His much-attempted film, Infinite Jest (V?), in post-production at his death, may very well be what the medical attache is watching.
- Is Troy, NY, which was accidentally wiped out by garbage units, the "Great Convexity"?

All that's incidental, considering it's not confirmed by anything--yet. But is anyone else struck by the similarity between Incandenza's fictitious filmography and Wallace's own legacy? Both made works ultimately titled Infinite Jest, both initially threw critics but had cult followings, and both ranged in styles that more-or-less comprised the "industrial, documentary, conceptual, advertorial, technical, parodic, dramatic noncommercial, and dramatic commercial."

That's an incredibly dense section to end on, so I'll skim over Orin's embarassing aerial decent (p. 65-66) into a football stadium and right by Pemulis's mentorship of his younger charges (p. 66-67) at E.T.A. in the finer usages of potent drugs like the "organopscyhedlic muscimole." The real closer to this section is similar to the metaphor I used to first compare Wallace's writing to that of the perfect tennis match. The Tennis Dream (p. 67-68) has Hal trying to play tennis, but on a court the size of a football field. "The lines that bound and define play are on this court as complex and convoluted as a sculpture of string. . . . The whole thing is almost too involved to try to take in all at once." And but then so yes, our boundaries are being stretched--turned into infinitely loose objects, covering an interconnected and public field--and again, we should be delighted in how close to Zeno's paradoxical edge Wallace keeps pushing that enveloping envelope.

Words looked up: bolections, reglets, dipsomaniac, incunabular, raster, pertussive, apres, recondite, mordantly, feck, psychodysleptic