Living in the Present Tense
Hope and Nonthings Productions
at Strawdog Theatre
Chicago is full of playwrights regurgitating television for the stage--and not just those knee-deep in the current craze for literal restagings. I'm referring to the crop of writers who actually believe they're writing plays, their produced scripts notwithstanding. Those who take a "lighthearted" approach spit out rambling two-hour sitcoms, while those who tackle "issues" end up aping movies-of-the-week. Most do both. In either case the "message" is usually so obvious, underlined in every other scene and explained in detail in lengthy program notes, that one wonders why the playwrights didn't simply appear onstage and announce "Relationships in the 90s are crazy!" or "My Creole roots are really important to me!"
In this depressing environment, playwright Ian Pierce shines as a beacon of hope. His new play, Living in the Present Tense, is an inspired orchestration of hyperkinetic characters trapped in a giddy, volatile predicament that exploits his own absurd theatricality. He never gives away the play's innermost secrets. And there's not a single one-liner or overwrought emotion. It's an evening as live as a room full of powder kegs.
Pierce understands that in the theater a simple, evocative premise is worth its weight in gold; once it's set in motion, nothing can interrupt it (no 2-minute breaks every 15 to run to the can). He sets his play in an imaginary city in the midst of a blackout; only one light remains inexplicably lit. Three mysterious zealots--Clarence, Philip, and Ben-ny--descend upon the house of light to find Stan, who "just accidentally graduated from college, leaving myself with nothing to do and nowhere to go." Needing to convince themselves that Stan is a prophetic figure, the metaphorical light in the darkness they've long anticipated, they put him through repeated interrogations, forcing upon him their twisted logic and foregone conclusions. All the while their "miracle" may be nothing more than faulty electrical wiring.
Pierce's world is sublimely hyperlogical. "I only read what I have to," says Clarence, "therefore my knowledge is limited to that which I know." Explanations are manufactured without context and applied indiscriminately. Clarence tries to enlighten Stan by proclaiming, "Your existence is complex. New shopping malls aren't filled with department stores in one day, you know....So when searching for a specialty item, you may not find it where you think." When asked what on earth he means, Clarence responds, "Nothing at this time, I suppose. It's somewhat of a personal parable of mine...I just keep using it, hoping someday it'll fit."
Pierce is a direct descendant of the absurdists of the 1950s and early 1960s, with their fanciful and disturbing portraits of a world logically imploded. Living in the Present Tense owes a particular debt to Eugene Ionesco, in whose plays maniacal authority figures or systems of authoritative thought often threaten to overwhelm hapless protagonists. Some might argue that Pierce's play is several decades out-of-date, but in my mind a return to the rigors of absurdist drama is long overdue. Too many American playwrights spent the late 1960s and 1970s slicing life into nearly static snapshots, turning the theater into a showcase for faux blue-collar angst. In the 1980s, any narrative was stageworthy so long as it was fractured into several dozen dreamily lit shards, resulting in a good deal of pretentious poetic gibberish. Absurdism demands that a playwright compress his material to its most volatile essence, to write without waste or wandering. Pierce understands the form exceedingly well.
Like the best works of Ionesco, Albee, and Pirandello, this play merely hints at its own deepest level of truth. When Pierce's characters ask, repeatedly, what the light in Stan's home could possibly mean, of course they're giving voice to the fundamentally unanswerable question of the play itself. Living in the Present Tense is about the irreconcilability of faith and reason. It details what happens when the need for truth becomes more important than the truth itself. Pierce may have a clear position on all these issues--he may even have a point. But thankfully he's not talking.