Studio 108

at Curious Theatre Branch, Rhinoceros Theatre Festival

Halfway through this bizarre hour-long put-on, an actor who represents the playwright smugly announces that the script–which addresses, very loosely, the responsibilities of earthlings to each other–is vastly superior to the audience’s capacity to grasp it. A bad critic, he warns, will pretend to understand it; a good one will know he’s out of his depth and confess his ineptitude (an emperor’s-new-clothes rationale I’ve long suspected was concocted by performance artists to shield them from accusations of incoherence).

At the end of Fathomless Performance Concepts Presents . . . Bliss, by Ewa, the same author-surrogate admits he’s wasted our time on a “cruel trick,” but “we have to do this to each other or we’d die of boredom.” After the curtain call the house lights come up, and before the audience can leave the actors get their notes: in a voice-over the author-director chews out cast members for failing his inspiration and themselves. They protest and stagger out.

The play’s auteur, called E.W. Angst (aka Eugene Wellington), has concocted an intricately self-referential spoof for the 1993 Rhinoceros Theatre Festival that for all its up-to-the-minute hip delivery recalls the anarchic energy of the early Monty Python, while its life-imitates-the-script plot owes much to Pirandello.

Clad all in trendy black, the nine zanies from Fathomless Performance Concepts (“the world’s most dangerous theater company”) open the evening with a chaotic warm-up and a plea for contributions for the actors’ methadone maintenance programs. All the while they’re also attempting to prevent the deaf sound designer from drowning out their announcements, one of which concerns the company’s litigious quarrel with the “Quagmire Cafe, home of the nude poetry mud & jello slam”: an actor who was to perform the show’s climactic “rhino ballet” was injured there. (The ballet, which looks like bad vaudeville, happens anyway.)

Unburdened by excessive originality, the loosely related sketches depict a young poet barely enduring his dysfunctional philistine family, the Smiths of suburbia. A spastically executed “danse evolutionaire,” performed to Ravel’s “Bolero,” depicts evolution from atoms to big brains to “conscious reflection,” ending skeptically with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In even less lucid sketches a blind woman unleashes Mamet-like curses against an opponent, then launches into an ontological argument against the existence of God. (It seems the playwright demonstrates his superiority not only by baffling his audience but by denying God wherever possible–as if history hasn’t done that often enough already.)

Gradually the actor-characters begin to feel manipulated by the unseen author, questioning his devious designs and their unwitting roles. But since they never reach a high enough level of awareness to rebel, they remain ciphers in Angst’s imponderable scheme. In the final moments of Bliss the actors strike back and reject the director’s inarticulate notes. I guess you take your liberation wherever you can.

I can’t deny having liked this daffy Bliss, if only for its unrepentant self-indulgence and freedom from cant. How can you loathe a show whose sound design is so off it seems to have come from a completely unparallel universe? But at the risk of resembling Angst’s “good” critic, I have to confess I can explain little of these arch antics. Fortunately, that’s beside the point–if there is one. If any of this stuff is serious, the Fathomless folks have a lot to explain; maybe the Quagmire Cafe would be a good place.