Friday, April 18, 2008

Fire Island

Photo/Diego Bresani

"Sometimes it seems to me," says Lydia, "men get all caught up in what they're doing and they forget to take a moment and look around to see what effect they're having on other people." It's an accurate description of Chuck Mee's new self-absorbed meditation on love, Fire Island, a play so consumed by the technology that it distracts rather than absorbs the audience. In Mee's defense, Nikos, who walks beside Lydia both in a shaky digital film and through the audience, explains that he's just trying to work through the logic of it, fearing that if he stops, he'll never be able to finish: "They think I'm so, like determined just barging ahead -- not really a sensitive person, whereas, in truth, I am." That, too, is fair -- Mee's plays are filled with romance and charm. But here, as video assails the audience on all sides and live actors ramble or reenact fragments in the middle of it all, his passion is abstracted and removed: it's too distant to have more than a cerebral impact, assuming one can stop ogling the set long enough to listen.

As the play continues, it widens its focus toward other lovers: a Beyond Sunset-like Henry and Yvette, a David Lynchian Phil and His Girl, and a veritable Shortbus-sized cast that includes Catherine and Hiroko, and Edmund and Herbert. As in other multimedia experiments (like the far more successful Bullet Hole Road), these characters all converse on-screen and off, slipping through time so as to overlap or run out of sync with the footage, or to juxtapose and at times contradict it. But with so many characters and so much happening at once -- not just on different screens, but from different angles that blur together at the seams -- it's hard to tell how an individual scene pieces itself together. More confusing is that Mee's script has a single voice, so that even though the actors are all different people, they all sound very similar. Additionally, that voice is a strained and affected simple one that doesn't at all mesh with the surreal physical actions being three-dimensionally projected (with Eyeliner technology), nor with the deep-throated singer Albert Kuvezin, or the skeletally disfigured "clown" (Gautham Prasad).

At heart, Fire Island is a love story, but the scenes keep branching into what Mee labels "riffs" (which is at least an honest assessment of his collaging). Bob -- a punk-clad critic -- justifies this by saying that all Greek plays are love stories: despite the tragedy, everything always happens for love. Again, while the text may support these wild claims, the rhythm of the piece doesn't: the clown's molestations are tame, Susan has a knife that she never uses, and Catherine wins Hiroko back with nothing more than pity. What's missing is anything more than the love story -- that is, the impetus for us to continue watching. Fire Island is a place, not an excuse to piece together these rambling, unremarkable characters, and technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nothing compels Fire Island to be a play rather than a novel (or a series of YouTube vignettes); placing the audience in the midst of the action only works if there is action, and Kevin Cunningham's direction -- heavily reliant on film -- keeps the actors perpetually out of reach.

From the collaborative effort that seems to have gone into Fire Island, it seems safe to say that Mee and Cunningham have fallen head over heels for one another -- and this is a problem. As Lydia warns, it's awful to fall in love, because at that point, "It's too late to set conditions. You can't say I'll love you if you do this or I'll love you if you change that because you can't help yourself and then you have to live with whoever it is you fall in love with, however they are." And Fire Island desperately needs some conditions, some boundaries, some form, for Chuck Mee is more an anthologist than a playwright, and he is reluctant to edit or shy away from anything he stumbles across.

That speaks toward his Theater of Life -- happening all around you, all the time, catch what you can -- but why go to a show for that? As Charles Isherwood joked some months ago, Trader Joe's works just as well for spontaneous and random drama. "[Cicadas] need no nourishment," Edmund says, describing his confusing love for Herbert, "they just sing continuously caught forever in the pleasure of the moment without eating or drinking until they die. This is the story of love. If you stay there forever in that place you die of it." Fire Island is a cicada, caught forever in a malnourished moment that, however vibrant at first, eventually dies.

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