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Writer Overboard




Neo-Futurists and Hope and Nonthings

at the Neo-Futurarium

By Justin Hayford

Playwright Ian Pierce has a problem with reality. But then, all good playwrights do. Unlike ethnographers, who strive to reproduce life without altering it, thoughtful playwrights routinely redefine reality in their own terms, constructing controlled models of potentially volatile situations and using the outcomes to try to extrapolate to universal truths about human existence.

One could argue, then, that good playwrights strive to understand reality in the manner of physical scientists. They accept that it exists independent of them and that it follows certain laws--or at least exhibits certain recurring patterns--and that their job is finished once they've uncovered those laws and patterns. But Pierce creates experiments on a higher order, wrestling with reality in the manner of a philosopher, probing the split between "objective" and "subjective" worlds to see if any meaningful distinction can be made between the two. He's less concerned with modeling reality than with the power dynamics that allow certain people to make the model, defining what reality is for everyone else.

It's a strategy that worked beautifully in his Living in the Present Tense, in which a mysterious citywide blackout sends a trio of zealots to the home of a feckless college graduate where one electric light inexplicably burns. Over the course of a single frantic hour, the intruders' fervent desire to assign meaning to the burning bulb leads them to twist facts and elevate a curious electrical phenomenon to a quasi-religious miracle. Needing to believe in something greater than faulty wiring, they browbeat the student--and one another--until their collective reality begins to conform to their needs.

The success of Living in the Present Tense was based on something more than its giddy intellectual complexities--namely, its compelling plot. Pierce fueled his philosophical musings with dramatic urgency: reality had to be sorted out before the characters turned homicidal. But in his new play, Simulticity, he's upped the philosophy and all but eliminated the urgency, producing a highly charged scenario that never quite seems to matter.

Simulticity owes much to Pirandello's metatheatrical approach, in which characters realize they're fictional elements in someone else's story yet believe all the while in the fiction they're doomed to play out. Of course, such theatrical self-consciousness predated Pirandello by several centuries; it was a gimmick Shakespeare fondly employed now and again. But Pirandello managed to turn this amusing trick into a powerful metaphor for the modern condition, in which the human mind is forever split and man stands just outside himself watching his own folly. This painful sense of self-surveillance is the animating principle behind Simulticity, in which a writer named Charm attempts to rewrite his own life as a play, using a character named Histle as his substitute and a character named Twine to represent his wife of the same name (perhaps). He forces them to act out his own crises--although more often than not they rebel, especially when an unexpected character named Grace (the grounded Erin Philyaw) shows up and insists on staying. Pierce himself, adding another level of "reality," provides the disembodied voice of the playwright narrating the story of the play Charm's attempting to write. And after all, Pierce is the one pulling all the strings.

Simulticity offers a cunning conundrum with the potential for a great emotional punch. As played with unwavering intensity by Patrick Populorum, Charm is a man whose heartbreaking hope is to escape himself. As he says late in the play, "I lost control of my life and wished to no longer be a part of it." The upheaval has something to do with Twine--a mysterious, mercurial creature as played by Fanny Madison--with whom he can never seem to connect. In fact the first time he "meets" her onstage, the two joyfully call out each other's names, run toward each other with open arms, then smack together like bumper cars. Charm tries the scene again, and this time the two end up chasing each other around the stage. The next time Twine slaps him, then simply loses interest.

Only Histle, Charm's surrogate (played with exquisite awkwardness by the always marvelous Steve Walker), manages to end up entwined in Twine's arms. Histle and Twine sit down for a candlelit dinner--the dinner Charm imagines for himself, it seems--but Charm's imagination is so meager that all he has them do is add condiments to their food and smile stupidly at each other.

Pierce avoids all the cutesy pitfalls that might have ensnared a lesser playwright. Regularly pushing his characters into bizarre digressions and tangents, he upends the play now and then; at one point Histle accuses Charm of controlling rather than creating dramatic moments, and then everyone launches into a ridiculous dance to Herb Alpert's rendition of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."

It's a struggle to keep yourself on track while watching Simulticity, in part because Pierce wants to prevent you from simply accepting traditional narrative as reality. And while this artistic adventurousness is admirable, ultimately it undermines the play. After all, the central crisis here seems to be Charm's need to re-create his own story. But Pierce never makes it clear what Charm's story was, beyond some vague falling-out with Twine, so we don't know why he needs to tell it--or, more accurately, retell it. Because we don't see Charm struggling for absolution or losing himself in a comforting fantasy or rehearsing for a real-life confrontation with Twine, he seems to have no real stake in the proceedings. Nor, for that matter, do the other characters. Often they interact on a purely formal level, repeating certain lines over and over to one another or carrying on two separate conversations simultaneously. While these theatrical hiccups are often intriguing, they don't tell us much about what these characters need from one another.

The result is that Simulticity ends up seeming too clever for its own good. The numerous insurrections staged by Charm's characters, which should give the play its tension, seem artificial. And Charm never makes any real demands on his characters, so nothing compels them to perform the story. In essence Pierce leaves his characters without clear intentions or limitations; it often feels as though anyone here can do anything. If Pierce wants to explore the tyrannical power of the omniscient narrator creating realities according to his whim, then he needs to come up with a story worthy of a tyrant.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.

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