Directed by Jonno Deily-Swearingen '98
Produced by Tim Yu, Hsuan Hsu '98 and Susan Deily-Swearingen
At Leverett Old Library
Through April 18
"A plot has been provided for those members of the audience who require one to maintain the interest."
This wry caveat in the program for # was an early signpost to inscrutability. The script, written by Tim Yu and J. Eric Marler, was many things--arch, hip, synthetic, cruel--but it was not easy to follow.
This is mostly because of the play's unique structure: twenty-one short scenes, "Simple Techniques for More Effective Communication," among which, out of sequence, are presented four events crucial to the "plot." These are revealed in a separate scene (brilliantly acted by Director Jonno Deily-Swearingen '98, as a Harvard prof) to be "TRYST," "WARNING," "THREAT," and "MURDER"--elements amounting to a predictable techno-thriller badly in need of satire, involving a boy genius (Chuck O'Toole '97), a spy (Paul Monteleoni '01), a democratic revolutionary (Jessica Shapiro '01) and several lunatics.
This play trades in esoterica. The prologue featured fake French in a thin-historicism that was quickly evaporated by the sight of black maskers exhibiting a proof of the Pythagorean theorem, to a chorus of ringing phones.
After this overture, one was struck by O'Toole's witty and well-timed delivery of a monologue about his boyhood intellectual prowess (calculating the trajectory and position of the airborne football instead of ducking). In a play full of paradox, the second scene, "The Banality of Evil," concludes smugly with gorgeous poetry.
The next two scenes, "Disposal" and "A Letter," violently introduce the hysteron-proteron core of the play--"A Letter" containing "WARN"--with more fine acting from O'Toole in particular.
Once this inner plot starts making sense (not, one could argue, until the "Diagram" in scene 14) it's fun to piece things together. But this task is often distracted into a fumbling account of the scores of #'s literary references. Some of these references are disjunct and capricious, but the best, like the Interlude of scene five, are masterpieces of intertextuality without being "coterie items. "Rising from trash cans borrowed from Beckett, Ezra Pound (Yu) and T.S. Eliot (Marler) offer up literature. In a later scene, Pound, with Robert Lowell, reflects that he "began with swollen head, and ended with swollen feet."
Fun, too, is the re-emergence of Yu and Marler as themselves in the Cafe scene, which, since it veers down into meta-self-referentiality, might have been disgusting. They discuss the writing of # as well as other "weighty," matters, including all the "L.B."s (read:lbs.) in REM's "It's the End of End of the World As We Know It."
These moments shed light on the whole play, and are far better than the Twins' turn at exegesis (Jorge Rodriguez and Ray Courtney, scene eleven), which came close to coherence. Another wacky moment in the that-almost-made-sense category was scene ten, "It Saw Charles Bernstein Suspended in a Shimmering Column of Light." Not only does this allow for surefire alien-abduction topos, but it gives Marler a chance to shine as he who laments the paucity of men who "can tell a parastatis from a syntagma."
The simple double desks of the twins, and the pantomime rostrum of C.B. draw attention to how stark the set is--a draped dais surrounded by twenty telephones, with other furniture passim. Such an arrangement is hard to dislike and equally hard to fathom. Is it the device-crazed silliness of modern life that leads it on? Or a nihilistic take on that culture? Or a big sardonic joke free of philosophical posture?
Such questions begged to be asked throughout the play. Though there were moments of unqualified genius (having the audience fill out a fake survey, for instance, or putting the curtain call in the middle, for instance, or allowing "The Dry Salvages" to speak through the windbag New Bedford fisherman--again, the versatile Monteleoni), the intellectual demands # made on its audience took their toll on our sense of the pleasure of drama. Perhaps the discombobulation of meaning in # is only perceived, or at least fully deliberate--in either case one must report one's own failure of understanding. This is a play to see, not only for its high Harvard humor, but for the chance it offers to match wits with its quick, bold and well-read creators.
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