DER INKA VON PERU
Victory Gardens Studio Theater
If you went to high school any time after, say, the mid-60s, chances are you studied grammar the Noam Chomsky way. Chomsky had our teachers lecturing us about deep structure and transformations, and making us graph sentences out in "trees" that always seemed to end up looking like the maintenance diagram that comes with a refrigerator.
I never understood a lot of the details. But I think I got the essential concept: that there are certain fundamental rules on which all language is based; that these rules are innate in each of us and constant from Boston to Beijing; and that, on the basis of these rules, it's possible to generate an infinite number of perfectly legitimate, if not necessarily truthful, sentences.
Chomsky, in short, came up with the linguistic equivalent of a unified field theory. However seemingly contradictory, strange, or stupid--however apparently false or foreign--all language, he said, coheres at the structural level.
I don't know when or where Jeffrey M. Jones went to high school, but he sure seems to know his Chomsky. Whether by design or coincidence, Jones's fascinating theatrical collage, Der Inka von Peru, takes a Chomskian approach to play making. This show's all about deep structure.
Der Inka's the first third of a trilogy constructed entirely out of found texts. Jones lists 47 sources for the material, from the Watergate tapes to Dante's Inferno, and from Gilgamesh to an Air Force recruitment ad. He's spliced excerpts from these sources together, creating a script that tells two central stories: One, the tale of Dr. Jason Wilfred--backwater surgeon and small-time slime--who'll do just about anything to take a podunk hospital away from its rightful owner, Dr. Shannon Malleson. And two, the tale of Francisco Pizarro--Spanish conquistador and epic slime--who actually did just about anything to take the Inca empire away from its rightful owners, the Incas.
Jones lets these stories slap up against each other without explicitly connecting them--all the while sticking in stray shards of material, like a bit, for instance, about a blowhard evangelist with big fund-raising plans. Sometimes the play just suddenly flips over into an alternative mode, and we find ourselves in the middle of a passage from The Importance of Being Earnest, Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet. Sometimes it'll make a leitmotiv of a famous line like Thomas Wyatt's "They fle from me that sometyme did me seke," flashing the line again and again in different contexts. Der Inka doesn't hide its seams. It's ostentatiously, self-consciously cut-and-paste.
In an afterword, Jones says he used television as a model for constructing Der Inka--and, yes, watching the sudden transit from context to context is certainly reminiscent of cruising the channels with your remote control. But he's also very carefully built a dramatic grammar, a deep structure, that unifies his click-click-click of images. The whole thing can be treed out, like so many sentences. Characters in one story shard occupy the same syntactical position as those in another, and finally become each other through a series of transformations: Jason Wilfred into the evangelist into Pizarro; Shannon Malleson into Shakespeare's Juliet into the Incan emperor Atahuallpa. And on and on.
More important than these equations of identity, though, are the equations of meaning that begin to multiply through Der Inka. Comical/profound associations develop between Pizarro's imperialism and Wilfred's low-dealing greed, between dime novel intrigues and the romance of European expansion. Between surgery and exploration, sacrifice and assassination. Opposites meet in the absurd juxtapositions of Der Inka von Peru, disclosing their essential kinship. Their syntactic unity. Everything connects deep down, suggesting logic and inevitability, in the manner of languages and dreams. Chomsky would be pleased.
And judging from the way his basso profundo laughter filled the Victory Gardens Studio Theater one night soon after opening, I think Jones himself was pleased with Arnold Aprill's handling of the play. Jones had a right to be pleased. Aprill manages to find the entertainment value in a show that often threatens to be a very ingenious bore. With its structural intricacy and its refusal to make conventional sense, Der Inka's a fairly cerebral piece of work. Difficult, as they say. Aprill eases the difficulties by going tenaciously for the jokes. Bringing out all the wit, all the sophisticated playfulness--even foolishness--that lie at the heart of the whole effort. You can't write something like Der Inka von Peru, after all, without you got a sense of humor.
Aprill gets all the help he needs from Eileen Niccolai, whose skewed gaze, helium voice, and killer timing give her narrator, Divina, a cracked waif quality. And from Mark Amenta, who overplays his juvenile role with delicate precision. Karl Potthoff seemed to be having some line trouble the night I saw him, but he gave his best moments as Wilfred, etc, a deadpan nastiness at once chilling and arch. Jeannie Affelder's appropriately naive as the ill-used Dr. Malleson, while Gita Tanner's downright vicious as her bad seed sister, Carol. Scott McPherson's something of a human prop as Selden Clark, the "detail man"--but at least he's a reliable one.
Sandy Petrick's set is exactly half perfect: Its frames-within-frames section provides a wonderful visual counterpart to the script's transformations, but its museum-display-case section merely looks muddy when it means to be suggestive. The score and sound design by Daniel Moses Shreier, on the other hand, are consistently mesmerizing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.