Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Truth: A Tragedy

Photo/Sara Krulwich

"The truth is a tragedy," says Cynthia Hopkins of her cabaret of curiosities, The Truth: A Tragedy. "Not the kind of tragedy codified and set down into rules and regulations by Aristotle," she clarifies, though that's obvious from her patchwork garb (the clothes of a sad clown). Hopkins takes an even less conventional route to this truth than Young Jean Lee's mortality grappling Lear: stand-up comedy routines; warbling songs set to springy piano music; documentary footage and other relics. (A museum installation of objects are mounted in the Soho Rep. lobby, and free for all to visit on Sundays from 12 to 6.) But it's despite all of these things that she manages to impress upon us the awful, wasting tragedy that is illness--specifically Parkinson's--and, eventually, death. In other words, the truth is so essentially tragic that it hardly matters how many showy lies Hopkins needlessly piles atop it: "The nature of my father's tragedy is partly that it is not legendary."

Hopkins has a unique style (I've never seen her work before, but she's a downtown regular), and her quirky music (think Regina Spektor) is at least as entertaining as that of Taylor Mac's or Sibyl Kempson's. But those attributes are distractingly performative: her portrayal of dyskinesia (involuntary spasms) calls attention to her, not to her father's illness or her attempts to cope with it. Her attempts to show us what her father might have felt--painful strobe lights and a mumbled monologue from a doctor--succeed, but it's a Pyrrhic victory to harm your audience. (There's a far better moment--the highlight of the play, in fact--in which potpourri and powder explode out of hidden compartments, and we are able to experience the painful shocks and degradations of aging in a more vicarious way.) During one scene, Hopkins delivers the doctor's lines, showing us how he switches from cold fact to cooler defensiveness and then to ice-cold anger; she then delivers all of her lines to the doctor (giving us, in essence, the other end of an overheard phone conversation), but it feels like a gimmick--and a poor one, considering how much of her work is emphatically visual or musical.

Independently, there are clever bits, with dementia shown as a series of sorrowful pratfalls and a wistful nostalgia for a healthier past performed as lively jigs. But these short vignettes remain carefully cordoned off: the character meant to unite them is certainly clear to Hopkins, he does not shine through for us. Instead, of his heart, we get his clutter: "This [anti-organizational] quality is simply an inherent part of his nature, like the way kudzu spreads itself out and covers everything over not because it has something to prove or issues with structure but because it's kudzu." Knowing this doesn't make the actual patchwork of a play any more palatable--just more understandable. At best, it makes Hopkins's performance more admirable, though not any more personal, which is where Lee and Lisa Kron have found success. This is not a dismissal of The Truth: A Tragedy: who am I to tell a true artist to ditch the accordion and the cliches? Rather, it is a regretfully unaffected observance.