The McKittrick Hotel
530 West 27th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Wednesday - Monday through March 8, $85
A few months ago, I finally gave in and saw The Perfect Crime, the mystery that’s been running in Manhattan since 1987 and features Catherine Russell; having racked up more than thirteen thousand performances in the same role, she’s now in the Guinness Book of World Records. Yet there was nothing special about it that made me understand its longevity. So it was with both trepidation and curiosity that I went to the New York premiere of The Woman in Black, which has been playing in London’s West End continuously since 1989. The two-act, 130-minute show is being staged in the McKittrick Hotel’s Club Car, the previous home of the National Theatre of Scotland’s fun, immersive drama The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, among other presentations.
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s Gothic novel and directed by Robin Herford, The Woman in Black gets off to a slow start, establishing a play-within-a-play format that could use a jump to get things going. A finicky old man named Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has hired an actor (Ben Porter) to punch up a ghost story he has written, based on events that happened to him. “I recalled that the way to banish an old ghost that continues its hauntings is to exorcise it,” Kipps says. “Well, then. Mine should be exorcised. I should tell my tale. I should set it down on paper, with every care and in every detail. I would write my own ghost story, and then, that my family might know and that I might be forever purged of it, relive it through the telling. The first part, the writing, I have done. Now comes the telling. I pray for God’s protection on us all.”
The first act introduces the audience to the setup: The old man has no sense of drama and repeatedly proclaims that he is not a performer, which is why he needs the Actor. (As in the script, Porter will heretofore be called Kipps, and Acton will be Actor.) In reciting the tale, the actor takes on the persona of Kipps as a young man, while Kipps juggles all the other roles, including a lawyer, a dapper gentleman with a dog, a landlord, a legal agent, and a carriage driver. Michael Holt’s set is spare, with a chair, a large wicker basket, and a curtain in the back that later reveals covered furniture behind it. Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting and Sebastian Frost’s sound play key parts in giving the show a bigger feel. Guests sit in chairs lined up in long rows; the bar features such cocktails as Woman in Black Punch, the Old McKittrick, and Mr Kipps. You can also have “Pie & a Pint”: a beer and a pub platter, pie & mash, or duck shepherd’s pie. A full dinner is available before the show.
The story that Kipps wants the Actor to tell is about himself as a young lawyer, as he travels to the end of nowhere, Eel Marsh House, for the funeral of a longtime client of his firm, the very much not-beloved Mrs Alice Drablow; in addition, he is to go through her papers to make sure her accounts are in order. As Kipps and the Actor play out the scenes, the latter often interrupts, concerned about how certain elements will be brought to life onstage. “There are so many things we cannot represent. How do we represent the dog, the sea, the causeway? How the pony and trap?” he asks. Kipps responds, “With imagination, Mr Kipps. Ours, and our audience’s.” He also notes that the unseen Mr Bunce will be using sound effects to further enhance the telling. The closer Kipps gets to Eel Marsh House, the creepier people act when they learn where he is going. And beware the Woman in Black, who’s liable to make you jump out of your skin.
The first act’s meta-discussion of stagecraft is repetitive and stodgy, but the show finally finds its groove in the second act, once Kipps arrives at his destination and dives into his research — and wonders what’s behind the locked door. After a bumpy beginning, the Actor settles into his responsibilities portraying numerous characters quite well while experiencing those long-gone days all over again. “I have a horror of it,” he tells Kipps. “Watching you, it is as if I relive it all, moment by moment . . . though you, of course, will never suffer as I did — I must always tell myself that.” Such is the nature of theater, which merely attempts to re-create and capture a sense of reality. There are plenty of scares as the denouement approaches; we were fortunate to have a screamer next to us, which was a bonus. Acton and Porter, who have performed the play in the West End, have an amiable camaraderie; Herford likes to keep things fresh, so he changes the cast in London every nine months (which is a far cry from the situation in The Perfect Crime). The Woman in Black is scheduled to run through March 8, but shows have a habit of extending at the McKittrick; Sleep No More has been playing there since 2011. Of course, it looks like nothing will ever top The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie show that has been running in the West End since 1952. Perhaps most important, The Woman in Black feels right at home in the Club Car, providing plenty of chills and thrills once the exposition gets out of the way.
THE WOOSTER GROUP: A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANTIQUE)
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
January 23 - February 2, $35-$50
There are certain actors who just pull you in instantly; from the moment you first see them onstage, you’re hooked. For many, it might be Al Pacino or Nathan Lane, Audra MacDonald or Mary Louise Parker. Jim Fletcher is like that for a lot of intrepid, adventurous theatergoers. Tall, balding, and ruggedly handsome, the Ann Arbor native didn’t start acting until he was thirty-five, in 1998; previously he had been a teacher, a caseworker, a dogwalker, an art handler, and a pedicab driver, among other day jobs. For the past two decades he has performed extensively with some of the premier experimental theater groups in the city, most prominently Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group, in addition to collaborating with the art collective Bernadette Corporation. Among the shows Fletcher has appeared in are Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, Maxwell’s Isolde, and Compagnie l’heliotrope’s Pollock.
A poet as well, he’s also ridiculously busy; in the past few weeks, as we conducted this interview over email, he and Sean Lewis reprised Bro-Tox at La MaMa, he stopped by the Kitchen to check out Maxwell’s latest play, Queens Row, and he’s heavy into rehearsals for the Wooster Group’s A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), which runs at the NYU Skirball Center January 23 through February 2. The production, which was previously seen at the company’s much smaller home, the Performing Garage in SoHo, is a tribute to Polish avant-garde theater director and artist Tadeusz Kantor, with Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, serving as dramaturg. Fletcher plays a priest; there are some funny behind-the-scenes videos on the Wooster Group’s website in which he makes a cross and plays silly word games with the cast and crew. (The cast also features Zbigniew Bzymek, Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Gareth Hobbs, Andrew Maillet, Erin Mullin, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, and Kate Valk; to find out more about the Wooster Group, the Carriage Trade Gallery on Grand St. is hosting a multimedia retrospective of the company through January 26.) Below, Fletcher discusses, in his inimitable poetic style, his dream role, working with some of the most original creators in theater, and his carpentry skills.
twi-ny: I was at a lunch party a few months ago and got into a conversation with a woman about experimental theater. She burst out about how much she loves an actor named Jim Fletcher, and we proceeded to rave about various shows we’ve seen you in. It seems you have a cult fan club out there. How does that feel?
jim fletcher: It feels great. Please elaborate! Mind you, I’m going by what you’re saying. It sounds like there’s energy bouncing around. I love that. More. Surplus. Slurplus. You know, house rules. . . . There’s energy out there in the room, I love it too, I’m devoted too. Devotion is juicy.
twi-ny: Devotion is indeed juicy. You are part of several experimental collectives that have devoted fan bases of their own, primarily the New York City Players, the Wooster Group, and Bernadette Corporation. How did you get connected with them?
jf: I’m working with people I love. It seems I never asked myself what kind of work I wanted to do, and also never the follow-up question, who best to do it with. In that sense I’m not a productive person. I think when you get close to people, you spontaneously start working in some way . . . out of sheer energy or whatever it is. Surplus.
twi-ny: What are the main differences between working with Richard Maxwell and with Elizabeth LeCompte?
jf: It’s easier for me to say what they have in common. In both cases it’s deep water, bright, alive. Like swimming in the ocean. Limitless, often extremely simple. Always big. And buoyant. Potentially dangerous because there’s power and a lot of desire. I’ve been lucky to work with them both. Ever-fresh. Always something other than what I would have imagined.
With Rich, among so many other things (ongoing), I learned the practice of active listening in the room, with your body and with your subtle body for that matter . . . whatever body you can muster. Listening to time, listening to others, to minds, listening to story and to space, without withdrawing your energy or agency, your own reasons — what can that yield, where will it go? Honestly that’s something you can pursue for as many years and hours as you have available, with audience.
With Liz I saw the whole situation get put into motion. You get a little as if your feet are off the ground. Could go in any direction at any time. Dreaming of flight. Something’s gained in translation. Movement. And she employs very complex orchestration — of lighting, sound, voice. Language. Set design. Onstage behavior. Machinery. And yes, video. All indisputably unified by the principle of a single viewpoint, that of a person watching — specifically, of her watching. It’s quite thrilling. You know sometimes as a performer in these great stage architectures of hers I simply don’t get it until I see the videotape of us trying to do it. There’s no way to really perceive it or even imagine it from onstage.
twi-ny: For a nonproductive person, you seem to work nonstop in a wide variety of genres. Among the characters you’ve portrayed over the last few years are Jackson Pollock, Jay Gatsby, and Lemmy Caution. Do you have a dream character you’d love to play?
jf: When I was first getting to know the artist Tony Oursler, he asked me that same question over coffee, “What’s your dream role?” I said “Frankenstein,” meaning, of course, Frankenstein’s monster. Seems like a year later as I was going into his studio for a few hours’ work, his assistant Jack [Colton] said to me, “I think we’ll get you into the Frankenstein makeup first.” Total surprise. Zero preparation. No time to think about it. It was so much like a dream. And my text was a song that Tony had dreamed that night, “Spark of Life.” He’d woken up and recorded it as it had come to him and I listened to it several times while Enver Chakartash and Naomi Raddatz did a genius monster makeover on me, which took all of a half hour. Frankenstein the created being. I sang it into Tony’s camera and it was strange. When I finished he pulled his face from behind the monitor; there was a tear rolling down his cheek. The tear of Frankenstein.
twi-ny: Ah, that was Imponderable, which was the centerpiece of his big MoMA show. I saw him and Constance DeJong bring back Relatives at the Kitchen two years ago. You’ve been in numerous productions at the Kitchen, as well as La MaMa, Abrons Arts Center, and the Performing Garage. For the next two weekends, you’ll be at the Skirball Center with A Pink Chair, which was previously staged at La MaMa and REDCAT in LA. Skirball is doing amazing things under Jay Wegman. What has the process been like bringing A Pink Chair there?
jf: [Skirball director] Jay Wegman makes things flow. He makes a deal spontaneously, no head-scratching, and sticks to it. Sometimes you have to sort of check yourself and say, yes, he’s really doing this. You can feel the Wegman effect when you’re working inside the institution — it was like that at Abrons too when he was there. A lot of heart. A lotta lot. He doesn’t flinch. And he seems radically relaxed somehow.
Once I was meeting with him in his office at Abrons and I casually admired this or that thing on his wall or on the desk, to which he repeatedly replied, “Do you want it?” It was very disarming and somehow a challenge. A kind of destabilizing personal bounty. I think he was serious. That’s the wild effect he has. . . . He leaves you pondering that to yourself: “I think he was serious? . . .”
twi-ny: Have there been any major adjustments to A Pink Chair given the larger stage and much bigger house?
jf: The show is feeling great in Skirball. It was conceived on a large scale, so it looks at home here. Skirball is a great space. The crowds here somehow have a kind of living room feeling . . . rather than some kind of modeled civic space. It’s a civic space that’s not trying too hard to look like one. It just is one. Very comfortable. Not obsessed with being the last word in design.
But so many of the shows I’ve seen here look great! I have noticed as an audience member here that I feel I’m able to be in contact with people sitting all the way across the room from me. Not every theater has that. Is it the curved rows? The warm array of nipple-shaped glass lamps as ceiling lighting?
As far as adjustments, we are spending a lot of time getting the sound right. That’s a major adjustment for any new venue we go to. Liz plays the room like a hi-fi set.
twi-ny: Speaking of being in the audience, when I am not in the audience watching you onstage, I often see you in the audience of other shows. What do you like to do on those rare occasions when you’re not in a theater?
jf: Burpees. Other stuff too. 🙂 Let’s spend some time together.
twi-ny: We’ll do so at Skirball, so getting back to A Pink Chair, can you talk a little about your character, the priest?
jf: About my character, I want to say up top, again: costumes by Enver Chakartash, in collaboration with Liz. When you swirl, it twirls. I have enough sense to know when a costume is doing the work for me, so I stay out of its way and let it do it.
The set is kind of like a territory, with different zones and thresholds, and a void, and a highly populated sector. In the most basic way I’d say A Pink Chair is a visit to the Underworld. A daughter (true story) engages a theater company (us) to help her go there to try to make contact with her father who was the great theater artist Tadeusz Kantor. How did we think to look there for him? That’s where he seemed to be headed in the final play he actually saw through to production, I Shall Never Return. The performers in A Pink Chair sometimes feel like pieces, subject to the zone they are in, and able to move in ways specific to each person. Mind you these are not explicit rules . . . it’s just how it has developed. Like laws of nature. What you’re seeing is a history of intelligent development . . . aimed at you, me, the unknown soldier, coming to see the show. My character the priest is one of those that is able to cross the void, for instance.
twi-ny: According to a behind-the-scenes video, it looks like you had a bit of a problem nailing your own cross; what are your carpentry skills like?
jf: I guess a crucifix is probably about the simplest thing you can make from wood. The rugged cross: Nail one piece of wood to another bisecting the smaller one, but not the larger one, at right angles. They say Christ was a carpenter. . . .
Experimental theater master Richard Maxwell’s Queens Row is a poetic meditation on loneliness in a postapocalyptic world. Continuing at the Kitchen through January 25, the sixty-minute show takes place in the Chelsea institution’s empty upstairs gallery space, a black box with an exposed sink area and a small balcony. The play consists of three monologues delivered by a trio of nonprofessional actors, sharing their characters’ deeply personal stories surrounding a shooting death, each woman somewhat more physical and emotional than the one before. First up is a woman (mixed-media artist Nazira Hanna) in a Native American-style top who is from the fictional town of Queens Row, Massachusetts; she stands stock-still on a small circular platform carved right out of the floor and lifted slightly by blocks of wood. Her words are cold and direct, her body rigid, as she announces, “I am a woman who had a child. I don’t have a name. I don’t have ID, and I never did, if you can imagine. There is no record of my fingertips or my eyeballs. . . . I was born and no one could stop that from happening. I had a child, and no one could stop that from happening. My son was killed, and no one could stop that from happening. And I exist in this place, asserting a certain right to exist, and to speak, and just like you, hopelessly existing.” She talks of a civil war, of riots “fueled by racism, xenophobia, foreign influence, class anger, and a simmering paranoia, hysteria on all sides.” The play was inspired by a dystopian dream Maxwell had, and her tale is like a nightmare, tinged with reality.
When she is done, she walks offstage through a door and is replaced by a second, younger woman (theater maker, facilitator, and PhD researcher Soraya Nabipour) from Odessa, Texas, wearing sneakers, black leggings, and a red sweater. She addresses a person no longer with us, bringing up seemingly random incidents from their past. “I string together memories as though it were some kind of lifeline,” she says. “Is it that we’re so much the same or that we need each other. We horrify each other but we’d die without each other, you know this, and you can’t stand it. Love is the thing you do when there’s nothing left to do. Love is the thing to do beyond words.” She is slightly more active although still appears confined, her past haunting her.
She is followed by a third woman (musician Antonia Summer, who recently trained at the National Youth Theatre in London) in a colorful shirt and long hair. She is from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and moves her body in herky-jerky ways that match her awkward speech patterns; she speaks as if she is learning language right in front of us. “t 6 d 5 6 s 5 6 e r r t s…………………... ient to fine a ja e, msrtik talking to …. pl this is right mao i, r;lorm r p & u.p.i. I,” she says before becoming understandable. “I get electrified with excitement when the towers which dot the horizon light up and connect together aligning that curve that arcs into me blasting my insides with light I am the offspring orphaned by fate and fatality My.” She talks of a father and a mother, of pain and desire, and asks, “whut is progeny?”
Written and directed by Maxwell, who previously presented The Evening, Natural Hero, and The End of Reality at the Kitchen with his NYC Players company, Queens Row is a gripping fantasy of a frightening near-future. Each character is circled above by a dozen lights, casting dramatic, often eerie shadows across the floor. (The set and lighting design is by Sascha van Riel, with costumes by Kaye Voyce.) The show isn’t so much a warning shot as an alternate reality that hovers just outside our purview; Maxwell includes several ghostly moments that are as scary as they are disconcerting. Hanna, Nabipour, and Summer — perhaps not uncoincidentally brown, black, and white — are each effective in her own right, the three of them interrelated by absence, implying how we all are connected in this dangerous universe, where dire actions have far-reaching consequences. As always with NYC Players, it is a challenging experience, told in uniquely Maxwellian style.
Brooklyn-based Object Collection returns to La MaMa this week after taking its Fugazi opera-in-suspension It’s All True to Norway, England, and Texas, with the utopian space opera You Are Under Our Space Control, making its world premiere January 23 – February 2. The company, whose “works upset habitual notions of time, pace, progression, and virtuosity. . . . [valuing] accumulation above cohesion,” goes on an adventure into the great unknown, exploring “space travel, transhumanism, astronautics, and the resurrection of the dead” in a world devoid of natural resources.
The show is written and directed by Object Collection cofounder Kara Feely, the text inspired by Sun Ra, the Russian Cosmists, and astronaut interviews; the music is by cofounder Travis Just, inspired by John Cage’s 1951 “Music of Changes.” The laboratory-like set design is by Peiyi Wong, with lighting by Jeanette Yew, video by Eric Magnus, sound by Robin Margolis, and streaming and programming by Scott Cazan. The multimedia piece will be performed by Steven Ali, Avi Glickstein, Yuki Kawahisa, Annie Kunjappy, Alessandro Magania, Daniel Allen Nelson, Nicolás Noreña, and Fulya Peker along with percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, guitarist Taylor Levine, and singer-songwriter Ava Mendoza. You can get a taste of what’s in store by checking out the music here, including such songs as “Full Contrast,” “Humans, Humans,” “Total Trance,” and “More Hospitable than Antarctica Might Be.” Once the run ends, video feeds will be posted online so you can create your own version of YAUOSC.
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 9, $90-$115
New York-born British actress Kathryn Hunter glitters and glows in William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton’s Timon of Athens, which opened tonight at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene. Simon Godwin’s production, initiated at the Royal Shakespeare Company and presented here in association with DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, should become the gold standard for the rarely performed play, a penetrating and very funny evisceration of greed and true friendship centered around a lust for jewels above all things. The text has been edited by Emily Burns and Godwin to make the lead character female, and TFANA regular Hunter runs with it, delivering an unforgettable, voracious performance as Timon (rhymes with Simon), a widowed noblewoman who loves to host feasts in her mansion where guests bring her trinkets and flatter her to no end and she gives them piles of cash and valuable gems. Painter (Zachary Fine) gives her an absurd portrait, Poet (Yonatan Gebeyehu) heaps words of praise on her, and Jeweller (Julia Ogilvie) offers her a fine stone, and she recompenses them manyfold. Sempronius (Daniel Pearce) insists that Timon not allow one of her servants, Lucilius (Adam Langdon), to marry his daughter despite their being in love, but he changes his mind quickly when she promises him money as a kind of dowry/bribe.
Her loyal steward, Flavius (John Rothman), notifies her that her wealth is dwindling, and the cynical philosopher, Apemantus (Arnie Burton), warns her not to put her faith in these false friends, but she is too caught up in the revelry to pay attention. “I wonder men dare trust themselves with men, / Methinks they should invite them without knives — / Good for their meat and safer for their lives,” Apemantus, the only character not wearing shimmering black or gold but instead a Patti Smith T-shirt, tells the audience. A few moments later, after Timon asks him to be silent, he says, “So. / Thou wilt not hear me now; thou shalt not then. / I’ll lock thy heaven from thee. / O, that men’s ears should be / To counsel deaf, but not to flattery!” When she finally understands that her coffers are empty, she sends out Flaminia, Lucilius, and Flavius to Lucullus (Dave Quay), Sempronius, and Lucia (Shirine Babb), asking for loans, but the trio is cruelly denied. Furious at this drastic change of events, the formerly happy-go-lucky Timon turns her back on the life she so treasured and shared with others. “Nothing I’ll bear from thee / But nakedness, thou detestable town,” she says of Athens. “Take thou that too, with multiplying bans. / Timon will to the woods, where she shall find / Th’unkindest beast more kinder than mankind. / The gods confound — hear me, you good gods all! — / The citizens both within and out that wall, / And grant as Timon grows her hate may grow / To the whole race of mankind, high and low! / Amen.” In the second act, Timon, now in tattered rags, is a bitter woman who spends most of her days digging her own grave until she is discovered by visitors from her past, including Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown), who has become the leader of an angry mob protesting the Athenian government.
Godwin’s sublime and timely interpretation of Timon of Athens addresses homelessness, income inequality, the dispossessed, an unsympathetic state, and humankind’s propensity for greed. Timon is a complex character, both antihero and cautionary figure of what can happen if wealth is all that matters and friends are available for purchase. I would say that Hunter is a revelation in the title role, but she’s been a revelation in almost everything I’ve seen her in, from Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s The Valley of Astonishment and Fragments to Hideki Nota’s The Bee and Colin Teevan’s The Emperor. Here she displays a ruggedly coarse physicality that is utterly majestic and downright enthralling, a force of nature unto itself, whether she’s being lifted by her sycophantic, hypocritical guests or carving her own epitaph. The glorious costumes, which range from ostentatious dresses to sleek black suits and, eventually, sackcloth and ashes, are by Soutra Gilmour, who also designed the impressive sets; the stage juts out far into the audience, who sit on three sides, with ramps leading off through two corners.
In the first act, opulence is on view, with a festive table, a large gold backdrop that serves as a doorway, and, later, a rug that apparently needs to be fastened more securely to the floor, as several actors tripped over different parts the night I went. The transformation to a forest for the second act is so dramatic you might want to stay in your seats and watch it instead of hurrying out for the restroom or a drink. At rear left, guitarist and bouzuki player Christopher Biesterfeldt, percussionist Philip Coiro, clarinetist Joshua Johnson, and singer Kristen Misthopoulos perform music by composer Michael Bruce, including one piece based on a Cretan peasant hymn and another from Shakespeare’s fifty-third sonnet. Monte-Brown and Rothman stand out in a strong cast, but it’s Hunter, who has previously portrayed King Lear, Richard III, and Cyrano, who will take your breath away while also making you wonder why you’ve never read or seen this play before.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Through January 19, $92
Samuel D. Hunter takes a sharp snapshot of a downtrodden America in the poignant drama Greater Clements, which ends its run at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Sunday. The play is set in Hunter’s home state of Idaho, the site of many of his works (A Bright New Boise, Lewiston/Clarkston). It’s 2017, and Greater Clements is at the end of the line; the Dodson Mine suffered a horrific tragedy in 1972 and shut down in 2005, and now there’s a referendum to abolish the town as a civic entity, at least in part as a reaction to the flood of wealthy Californians moving in. Maggie (Judith Ivey), who owns the local mine museum, is closing up shop; she has just brought her mentally ill twenty-seven-year-old son, Joe (Edmund Donovan), back from a stint in Anchorage, where he went to get away from some trouble he caused but did not necessarily fully understand. Maggie is visited by her high school flame, the gentle and stoic Japanese-American Billy (Ken Narasaki), and his adventurous fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Kel (Haley Sakamoto); Maggie, who is divorced, and Billy, who is widowed, flirt around with the idea of perhaps getting back together. Meanwhile, Maggie’s friend and employee, Livvy (Nina Hellman), is leading the charge for the town to remain incorporated, and Wayne (Andrew Garman), the police chief, is keeping a close watch on Joe, who appears to have potentially dangerous tendencies.
Shrewdly and discerningly directed by Hunter’s longtime collaborator, Davis McCallum (Stupid Fucking Bird, London Wall), the nearly three-hour Greater Clements explores a wide range of issues, from Japanese internment camps and cancer to mental illness and gentrification, from corporate insensitivity and greed to fear and, perhaps most pointedly, loneliness. Dane Laffrey’s potent, active set, which includes a small part of the audience seated in a corner section virtually amid the action, features a second level that descends from above; unfortunately, the construction requires numerous poles that will occasionally block some of your view as the setting changes from the mine and the museum to a bedroom and living room. Yi Zhao’s lighting is supremely effective in the scenes that take place in the mine itself, putting us inside the dark underbelly of America. Tony and Obie winner Ivey (Steaming, Hurlyburly) is exquisite as Maggie, bringing an intimate, realistic warmth to a stalwart woman who deserves better out of life, but Donovan (Lewiston/Clarkston; Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1) steals the show with his powerful, in-your-face portrayal of a man all-too-aware of his situation but not necessarily capable of controlling it.
London-born comedian and disability activist Jess Thom returns to the BRIC House Ballroom with a spectacular sixty-minute presentation, a brilliantly conceived evening that reimagines the theatrical experience, for both actor and audience. In May 2016, Thom, who has Tourette Syndrome, held the New York premiere of her Edinburgh Fringe hit Backstage in Biscuit Land at the Brooklyn arts institution, delivering a “one-woman show for two” that humorously looks at her life and how she deals with Tourette’s, a neurological disorder that causes her to uncontrollably shout out words and phrases, such as “biscuit,” “hedgehog,” “sausage,” “I love cats,” and “Fuck a goat.” (Only ten percent of those with Tourette’s have copralalia, involving foul language.) She also uses a wheelchair, as her disability comprises various physical tics, such as banging her chest whenever she says “biscuit,” that make it too dangerous for her to walk on her feet.
Back at BRIC for the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, Thom is performing Samuel Beckett’s 1972 monologue Not I in a relaxed, inclusive environment. As you enter the small, intimate black-box space, Thom is in her wheelchair, greeting each audience member and inviting them to sit either on cushions, benches, or folding chairs. She is friendly and outgoing, and she doesn’t pause or change moods when the tics come up. She even plays off them; for example, when she says, “I love cats,” she quickly adds something like, “Well, I don’t really even like cats,” and when she proclaims, “Fuck a goat,” she responds by assuring everyone that no one will be having sex with an animal. Meanwhile, to her right, ASL performer Lindsey D. Snyder signs everything Thom says, including the verbal tics. Reaching the whole audience matters to Thom: The seating in Not I is inspired by how she was rudely treated when she attended a 2011 show by stand-up comic Mark Thomas, when theater staff confined her to a sound booth because other members of the audience objected to her gesticulations and vocal outbursts.
Once everyone is settled, she explains the plans for the evening and describes how a friend had told her that she should consider staging her own version of Not I, because it relates so organically to her life. The play, which has been performed by such actresses as Jessica Tandy, Beckett muse Billie Whitelaw, Julianne Moore, and Lisa Dwan and gets its title because it is told in the third person by the protagonist, is an ellipses-filled diatribe of incomplete thoughts and tangents that generally runs between nine and fifteen minutes; it is not a race, but the performer is expected to go through the 2,268 words as fast as possible. “I am not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect,” Beckett wrote in a 1972 letter to Tandy prior to the play’s world premiere at Lincoln Center. Dressed all in black, wearing a balaclava and a hoodie, Thom, in her wheelchair, is lifted eight feet in the air (the set is designed by Ben Pacey), and she is lit so only the bottom half of her face can be seen. Usually, only the actress’s mouth can be seen, as if it exists by itself, but changes had to be made because of Thom’s Tourette’s. As she power-drives through the piece, she occasionally gets caught in a series of “biscuit” moments but then forges ahead. She is moving through the dialogue so fast, and so unpredictably, that Snyder, also dressed in black and taking the place of the Auditor, the second character in the play, is practically dancing on the floor. (Beckett’s movement directions for the Auditor note, “This consists in simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion.”)
The audience is not meant to understand every word and plot detail as a woman, identified as “Mouth” in the script, relates several stories involving shopping in a supermarket, going to court, sitting on a mound in Croker’s Acres, and searching for cowslips in a field, bringing up such concepts as shame, torment, sin, pleasure, and guilt. This protagonist has suffered an unnamed trauma that has led to her becoming an outcast from society and virtually unable to communicate with others via speech. It’s clear why Thom’s friend suggested Not I for her, perhaps most evident from the following excerpt:
“what? . . tongue? . . yes . . . lips . . . cheeks . . . jaws . . . tongue . . . never still a second . . . mouth on fire . . . stream of words . . . in her ear . . . practically in her ear . . . not catching the half . . . not the quarter . . . no idea what she’s saying . . . imagine! . . no idea what she’s saying! . . and can’t stop . . . no stopping it . . . she who but a moment before . . . but a moment! . . could not make a sound . . . no sound of any kind . . . now can’t stop . . . imagine! . . can’t stop the stream . . . and the whole brain begging . . . something begging in the brain . . . begging the mouth to stop . . . pause a moment . . . if only for a moment . . . and no response . . . as if it hadn’t heard . . . or couldn’t . . . couldn’t pause a second . . . like maddened . . . all that together . . . straining to hear . . . piece it together . . . and the brain . . . raving away on its own . . . trying to make sense of it . . . or make it stop . . .”
When we go to live theater and watch someone stumble over lines or hesitate and stammer as if they’ve lost their place, our hearts tend to sink and we don’t want the actor to be embarrassed. But when Thom, tearing through the words at a frenetic pace, suddenly goes into “biscuit” mode, not only are we rooting for her, we are with her every second, willing her on to get to the finish line with glory. It’s exhilarating when she storms back into Beckett’s language. But it’s important to note that we are not rooting for her because of or in spite of her disability (a word, by the way, that she freely uses); we are helping carry her to the end in a communal act that goes far beyond mere kindness.
The Beckett section is followed by Sophie Robinson’s short documentary Me, My Mouth, and I, which goes behind the scenes of the creation of Thom’s performance, and then Thom — who is also known as Touretteshero for her work with children and for her same-named organization that seeks to “change the world one tic at a time” — offers the audience the chance to talk to their neighbors about their thoughts on the play and ask her questions. The evening, which is passionately directed by her longtime collaborator Matthew Pountney, concludes with Thom signing copies of her 2012 book, Welcome to Biscuitland, in which Stephen Fry writes in the foreword, “Jess is a true hero, with or without her Touretteshero costume. Jess fuck biscuit Thom, I biscuit fuck fuck biscuit salute biscuit you.” And so will you.