Wednesday, October 27, 2010

THEATER: Barring the Unforseen

Sitting in the pitch darkness of IRT, with only the occasional beam of an usher's flashlight slicing through the rows, it's amazing how clearly one tunes into the talkative audience members around them, and surprising how much they share, as if they are sitting alone with their friends, as if the rest of us have disappeared. It's easy to listen when you cannot watch, and in that sense, Mike Daisey has not handicapped himself at all for his latest monologue, Barring the Unforeseen, for he spends most of it speaking in the darkness, into a microphone, a voice from afar, though he is--as usual--sitting at his plain desk, with a glass of water and his outlined notes before him. He has, however, handicapped himself in just about every other way, from largely impersonal subject matter (as removed as he tells us his psychiatrist father was) to the whispering tone of a ghost story, which subdues and cripples the sprightly energy that's usually in his surprised and outraged inflections.

Skipping over the obvious and self-deprecating puns of the title, then, Barring the Unforeseen has set itself an impossible goal: to describe madness, or the brink thereof. His story begins with a coincidental encounter that leads to a break-in seance at H. P. Lovecraft's home, but refracts all over the place from there, touching on Lovecraft's childhood (and his racism) to Daisey's own upbringing, in empty, lonely Maine, where he felt he had nothing better to do than to ponder death in between the jam sandwiches that were his only highlight. As usual, the strongest threads are those that involve Daisey's memory directly, but unlike previous shows--like If You See Something, Say Something's trip to Trinity--these threads haven't yet been woven into a sturdy narrative.

Of the seven monologues, three deal with his first childhood friend, a young girl who lived in a literal shack and who, for some reason, deigned to be friends with him. But while we get terrific descriptions of the yellowed linoleum floor and the like-new bathtub, her low-ceiling attic bedroom and the off-stage tension of her father's arrival home, their actual relationship remains unclear, as does the would-be-chilling revelation of what really went on in that home. Moreover, none of this really ties back into the Lovecraftian world introduced at the beginning of the show--save for Daisey's eerie recollections of Ouija boards--and many of the scenes are aborted without conclusion: how exactly did their seance end?

Barring the Unforeseen, despite dealing in ghost stories or in the creeping just-out-of-sight reality of true terror, fails to be unsettling in the least, though it's at least admirable that Daisey doesn't go for cheap frights in the darkness. Then again, Daisey's calm, measured intellect doesn't lend itself to the campfire narrative, and despite the interesting turn it takes at the very end, the lack of a driving urgency behind this story--and the erratic plotting--makes for an ultimately dull monologue.

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