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Something From Nothing

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Going

at the Lunar Cabaret

Bantam Lightweight

Curious Theatre Branch

at the Lunar Cabaret

Drowning of Thirst

Great Beast Theater

at Pulaski Park

In the years immediately following World War II, a handful of writers in Paris hit on an ingenious plan: to capture the unreality of existence by creating thoroughly reflexive drama. Theater of the absurd--suggested by Dada and surrealism, demanded by existentialism, and presaged by August Strindberg, Alfred Jarry, and Antonin Artaud--replicated the convulsion of self-reference sweeping through the media of the time. But where modernism in music and visual art arguably damaged--or rendered profoundly irrelevant--earlier, more representational traditions, in drama it signaled the perfection of a peculiar verisimilitude.

Key to this quasi realism were notions that socially constructed reality was inherently flimsy--and growing flimsier and flimsier in the modern age. Viewed this way, the limitations of theater could work for its feeble imitation of life: the more limitations the better. Though absurdist drama can hardly be reduced to a formula, this remains its significant structural feature. Thus the impossibility of genuine "action" in Beckett comes to speak for human impotence, and the artificiality of scripted dialogue in Ionesco for the impossibility of communication.

Plays like Endgame and The Bald Soprano also include hints of a specifically 20th-century anomie, and in the 50s and 60s a second wave of absurdists--Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter--expanded on those suggestions to depict cultures with fatal prognoses. In these plays theater's talkiness and abstraction stand in for our culture's disconnected intellection and eventless virtuality.

Three of the pieces in the Rhinoceros Theater Festival--Going, Bantam Lightweight, and Drowning of Thirst--grow out of these traditions and invoke the storefront corollary: that the barest possible stagecraft can make the most sense when attempting to convey an underlying void. Two manage to live up to the maxim that nothing is more real than Nothing while the third proves that Nothing is sometimes just the lack of anything.

Going, by Peter Handler, seems an almost direct descendant of second-wave absurdism. Its furious, fiendishly clever dialogue bears the marks of Stoppard and Albee, and its insubstantial setting is unmistakably contemporary. In a near future of endless urban sprawl, two hucksters somewhere between DJs and infomercial hosts pitch conveniences from a Spartan studio to carbound motorists. Anyone who's spent any time in LA traffic, where people even read in their cars, will recognize Handler's premise, blown up to ridiculous proportions: that no driver ever reaches his or her destination.

Life as lived in a box on wheels becomes a metaphor for the alienation produced by technology. And as Handler's picture of absolute gridlock in the outside world emerges, the nonstop chatter of Go Go Go Guy and Dictionary Girl takes on a metaphysical character. Why do they seem to concoct and offer new services on the spot? How, after all, would goods and services be conveyed to patrons targeted for their inaccessibility? Slowly the main function of the two characters' running commentary becomes clear: to conceal or distract from the emptiness of perpetual travel.

Going is a masterful case of having it both ways. While strongly implying that this humming nomadism is an eternal feature of consciousness, it just as strongly criticizes our era's subjection to it. And in Handler's view the narrow options available to the individual, symbolized by Guy and Girl's different reactions to the situation, are classically, elegantly existential. To go on or not go on--as signified by staying in the car and on the road or getting out and off, as signified by holding up one end of a pointless conversation or falling silent.

In Amy Ludwig's crisp staging the actors give capable, engaging performances of the fast-moving, repetitive dialogue--it must have been a nightmare of timing and memorization. Striking just the right note of faintly desperate flippancy, Philip Dawkins makes lines like "What if you could drive forever and never die?" and "Now maybe we can't stop, but why would we? That's the freedom!" resonate with an insane "life-affirming" force. As the more troubled, thoughtful Girl, spinning fantasies of bulldozing houses to free up enough parking spaces to allow motorists temporary respite, Gina Torrecilla is quietly touching. The set is meager--a room holding only a table with a blank console attached to a foot-wide bundle of cables--and both actors exploit its claustrophic, disconnected quality for all it's worth.

Of course, the absurd conversation in Going could also stand for an internal dialogue. Shawn Reddy's Bantam Lightweight, which offers a longer and more leisurely two-person scene, emphasizes this possibility even more strongly. Here the dialogue is decidedly first-wave stuff (though in its texture and gaminess it recalls Stoppard) that hews to the vague rules of an almost contextless situation, consistently falling into aphoristic metaphors for subjective experience.

In the literal scenario two aging friends (Beau and Ned O'Reilly) tromp around an attic room planning the entertainment for an upcoming gathering. What these coots call entertainment, however, is perplexing. One favors punning and involved word games; the other, telling allegorical pseudoscientific anecdotes with a mile-long morbid streak. Under the guise of "brainstorming," however, both seem engaged in some inscrutable competition. The ambiguity of their intentions, combined with the opacity of their backgrounds and relationship, keeps their characters and the play's dynamic resolutely protean.

The only constants in Bantam Lightweight are the conversation and a strangely calm sense of death's imminence. As in Going, eventually it becomes clear that the dialogue is an end in itself, a shield against the silence encroaching upon the two characters. And whether they represent one man or all old men, when this realization dawns on them, Reddy's lyrical writing flowers into a chain of profoundly beautiful epiphanies. As the play closes it's impossible to say whether one or both characters have met a symbolic end--by the work's entirely reasonable logic, death precludes anything but the description of what directly precedes it, likened to "floating away, on a little piece of ice...[knowing] there's nothing left but to jump."

Reddy, who also directs, has crafted a small gem--a funny, gently moving existential drama. The O'Reillys, old pros at this sort of thing, make what's essentially 90 minutes of idle rumination accessible, engrossing, and often delightful. Again, the minimal staging--chairs, a table, a painted backdrop of an elm tree the room overlooks--enhances the play's effects, perfectly illustrating the fragility and precariousness of existence.

Both these pieces exemplify the way transparent gestures can speak volumes. Matthew Wilson's Drowning of Thirst demonstrates their equivalent capacity for dull incomprehensibility. Like Going and Bantam Lightweight, it brandishes emptiness and disconnection at every turn, but in such a sketchily ponderous fashion that the void it maps seems to correspond solely to another in Wilson's imagination.

I would synopsize the plot and characters if the play itself were any more than this synopsis. I'd wager that this collection of tissue-paper silhouettes is meant to represent a generation's alienation and emotional underdevelopment--and the featureless plain they've been plopped down onto, a world that offers no niche. Then again, it may just be about an insufferable bunch of losers. In any case Drowning of Thirst is underwritten, unconvincing, overlong, and trite. And here the slight staging merely emphasizes the play's flimsiness.

It's hard to gauge the actors' performances: between the paucity of the script and the lifelessness of Wilson's direction, no one has a chance. In fact this unique production has you rooting for everyone to die as quickly as possible. Which goes to show that writing about Nothing isn't nearly as easy as it looks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Beth Sova.

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