GOGOL: A MYSTERY PLAY
Blind Parrot Productions
THE SOUND OF A VOICE
Raven Theatre Company
“None of your bullshit!” –Gogol to Mesmer, in Gogol: A Mystery Play.
Len Jenkin’s Gogol: A Mystery Play opens with Gogol himself welcoming the audience to what might be called his going-away party. “I have certain final business to conduct,” he avers, rather mysteriously, “to wind up my affairs in preparation for departure.”
Gogol adds that he’s not been feeling very well lately. “There’s already been an accident,” he tells us. “I’ve been wounded. A slipup backstage, some weeks ago, in this very theater. . . . It still bleeds.” A moment later, Gogol puts his hand inside his tuxedo jacket. When he withdraws it again it’s covered with blood.
Or at least the script suggests that it be covered with blood. There’s nothing to say a director’s got to comply. And David Perkins of Blind Parrot Productions hasn’t. When Gogol shows us his hand in the new Blind Parrot version of Jenkin’s odd, provocative play, it’s clean.
Why? I’m sure there are any number of possible explanations. Maybe the tux was borrowed, and Perkins didn’t want to risk staining it. Maybe Splatter Theater had already used up every drop of the city’s available stage blood. Maybe one of the Blind Parrot board members gets queasy. Or maybe the gimmick just didn’t work on the night I was there, and Gogol’s normally swimming in blood.
One can’t be sure. But for whatever reason, Perkins and company created an oddly compelling image when they stopped Gogol’s bleeding: the image of a man building facts from invisible proofs. From a handful of nothing.
Here’s a guy who claims he’s got a debilitating wound. Claims he can’t stop the ooze. Even gets huffy in defense of his credibility. “You think that’s a lie,” he says. “You actually believe I’d waste my time and yours feigning injury. What interest would I have in making fools of you? Do you think I do parlor tricks as well?” Yet he can’t produce the slightest dribble of red. Talk about your unreliable narrators.
The twist, of course, is that he’s got us believing him anyway–if only because this is the theater: one of those places, like the bedroom and the doctor’s office, where you have to believe or the tricks won’t work. And our believing is pretty much what Gogol’s about.
The play centers on a rendezvous–or trap–Gogol’s set up for Franz Anton Mesmer, the original mesmerist. While Gogol himself has only a morbid obsession in common with his famous Russian namesake, Nikolay, Mesmer’s meant to be taken as the guy in the history books: the 18th-century Viennese physician/humbug who hypothesized the existence of a cosmic substance–an “animal magnetism”–that, he claimed, certain people can absorb and redirect so as to effect cures. Mesmer, naturally, claimed to be a veritable lightning rod for the stuff. Maybe he was. He’s reputed to have had some success treating hysterics with his technique, which anticipated modern therapeutic hypnosis. Upper-class neurotics flocked to his Paris clinic–at least until a Bourbon version of the AMA shut him down.
Gogol wants a cure, too. He’s sure his wound is killing him, and he’s lured Mesmer to his little theater on the assumption that Mesmer’s art can make it right. Of course, Mesmer, being a quack, is loath to go fooling around with anything that could actually prove mortal.
You can see where this is heading: Mesmer, the con artist who made authentic breakthroughs, treating Gogol, the stabbed man with no blood. Jenkin and Perkins manipulate reality and illusion, appearance and fact, convention and surprise into a kind of theatrical Escher print–a perceptual perpetual-motion machine that runs on faith and the terror of death.
Faith is iffy. In the end, appearances can be as deceiving as facts. Nothing holds. Nothing but death, anyway, which is at once the only reality and the source of every fiction.
Jenkin and Perkins have a lot of fun getting us to this dire conclusion. The whole second part of Gogol is set up to be a party, complete with novel entertainments. There’s the girl with the mind-reading pig; the mild bondage scene; and an appearance by Pontius Pilate that (along with a few other touches) convinces me Jenkin was reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s great novel, The Master and Margarita, when he wrote Gogol.
Each act illustrates again the tension and interplay between artifice and reality. Jenkin has an absolute notion of what he’s trying to do and which points he’s got to hit along the way. Gogol, after all, is a mystery play–a ritual–and you can’t skip steps in a ritual. Unfortunately, this formal integrity leads to a certain amount of tedium toward the end: Jenkin’s got to plod through each step even after his audience has been there and gone.
But the dull passage is brief and minor, and it can’t negate the dark pleasures of the script. Or the brighter pleasures of this production, either. I can’t remember when I’ve seen so many remarkable performances in a single non-Equity production. Even Christopher Piecynski’s rather bad Gogol is fascinatingly, athletically bad.
Larry Neumann Jr., on the other hand, is far from bad. An exceedingly strong actor, even in his baggy suit, he communicates every ounce of Mesmer’s wit, pain, and bewilderment.
Jane Salutz is sexy as Gogol’s mistress; Isabel Endlichhofer, exquisitely pathetic as the pig girl. Javi Mulero blasts his way, entertainingly and appropriately, through the role of Inspector Bucket. Kent Modglin has a nice turn as a man whose dog died; Peter Malof has another as Pilate. Patricia Pendleton cultivates a fine cynicism as Mesmer’s nurse, and Peter Blatchford’s just fun to look at. So much energy and invention–you’d almost swear it was real.
It’s funny: The title, and much of the content, of David Henry Hwang’s short play, The Sound of a Voice, have to do with the comforts of talk. A lonely woman takes in a stranger, simply to enjoy his conversation. To hear a voice in the house. But all through the new Raven Theatre production, I kept thinking how absolutely perfect the piece would’ve been if it had been done in silence.
I suppose that’s a testament to the clean, precise telegraphy of Todd Schmidt’s direction. Schmidt uses his young actors extremely well, getting them to communicate as much through an unobtrusive stylization as through speech. Russell Kuzuhara, especially, says a lot through the physical expansiveness he brings to the role of the boarder.
My desire for a mime version also suggests the mythic quality of Hwang’s strange Japanese love story. In a way, Hwang did himself in, picking this tale as the basis for his script. Next to the clarity of its obsessions, the timelessness of its archetypes, Hwang’s language seems weak and presumptuous. We aren’t impressed by his interpretation of the material, but by the egotism of the writer–any writer–in attempting an interpretation. The story’s beyond interpreting. It’s just there, and it and its audience both know what it’s about. To add in lots of talk is to demean it. Hwang’s voice doesn’t work.
Still, the failure’s lovely. My advice: go see The Sound of a Voice, and simply turn down the sound.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.