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Night Coil

Trap Door Theatre

By Nick Green

By his own admission, playwright Jeffrey M. Jones has never been interested in producing a realistic facsimile of ordinary human existence–or in using conventional theatrical means. “Reality has to intrude with a vengeance when theatre’s trying to urge some political (or social, environmental, multicultural, etc.) agenda on you,” this instructor at the Yale School of Drama wrote in the September 1994 issue of Performing Arts Journal. “Plays that attempt to comment on the world we live in are invariably obvious and most are just plain clunky.”

For Jones, everyday reality is simply too boring to bother with. His most polemical work–and his best known in Chicago, where it’s been a perennial October favorite–is Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a series of blackouts in no particular order showing a young middle-class couple at home on Halloween. Here “reality” is represented by a constant stream of disjointed images and white noise from the couple’s TV–a reality that’s as skin-deep as the facade of white-bread suburban bliss in this 1980 anti-Reagan diatribe.

Jones’s bleak, Kafkaesque fever dream Night Coil–first staged two years before Seventy Scenes of Halloween–bends the space-time continuum even further: this is a test of wills between the ego and the id that takes place entirely within the realm of the subconscious. The setting challenges the audience from the start, and Jones’s script takes snippets of Hamlet’s “To die, to sleep / To sleep: perchance to dream” soliloquy and turns them into a series of non sequiturs. There’s no question this is a potent theatrical exercise, but it lacks the comic touches and clarity of Jones’s later works, not only Seventy Scenes but the trilogy “A History of Western Philosophy by W.T. Jones.”

Night Coil isn’t so much a play with characters and action as it is an exploration of ideas, a very intellectual attack on intellectuality. It’s to Trap Door Theatre’s credit that they’ve given the play the lyrical beauty it needs to come to life.

As in Seventy Scenes of Halloween, Jones’s point of departure is psychoanalysis, but Night Coil is devoted almost entirely to an academic examination of the psychology of dreams, never translating theory into the accessible terms that mark Seventy Scenes of Halloween: there the Beast and Witch who intrude on the happy couple are more than mere Freudian symbols. C.G. Jung wrote in his groundbreaking 1945 essay “On the Nature of Dreams” that unpacking dreams requires “specialized knowledge.” And understanding Night Coil will probably be easier if one understands Jung’s dream analysis. Director Michael S. Pieper has furnished a handy glossary of dream motifs in the program. Still, it’s impossible to keep up with Jones’s succession of images, even if they do recur: the absence of an intermission and the speed with which the playwright assaults our senses don’t allow much time for contemplation. Ultimately it’s enough, however, to know why these motifs are in the play even if their explicit meanings are unavailable.

In fact Night Coil may work best if the left brain is a little befuddled. The script calls for the stage to be split evenly down the middle, creating two side-by-side chambers, one occupied by the Young Man (Tom Bateman) and the other by His Double (Michael McEvoy). Thanks to Pieper’s perfect casting, these two figures initially appear identical. But the Young Man is clearly left-brain dominant: though hotheaded, he’s also analytical and rational. Meanwhile His Double is taciturn, sensitive, and creative–all attributes associated with the right brain. The Young Man is the thinking ego that perceives “reality” while His Double is the id, responding emotionally and instinctively to what goes on around him.

In the end, Night Coil attacks the failures of Jungian dream interpretation more than it celebrates it, as Jones exposes how rational analysis ultimately suppresses the creative instincts and limits the myriad possibilities that dreams represent. The Young Man and His Double encounter a number of dream figures who reinforce this attack. Three policemen (all dressed in three-piece suits) are repressive authority figures while a singing tramp and an idealistic ingenue push the Young Man and his doppelganger to reinterpret their surroundings. And the crux of Night Coil is the potential destruction of creativity: the Young Man feels a murderous hatred for His Double, who’s able to perceive things he cannot.

Pieper constantly underscores the opposition between the two figures in this deft staging: the Young Man and His Double initially mirror each other’s actions and responses, but these diverge as the schism between the two becomes wider or converge as the right- and left-brain responses to certain stimuli coincide. And Pieper fills this production with astonishingly beautiful images: when one character refers to “the shape in the shadow of the shade,” the Young Man mirrors His Double’s onstage movements from behind a backlit window. Best of all, this terrific show is never undone by Jones’s purposely anarchic script. Even when the play reaches a fever pitch–all the characters inhabit the cramped stage at once, screaming and vying for attention–Pieper creates order through the grace, fluidity, and crack timing of his staging.

Pieper’s excellent cast give suitably restrained performances (especially good are Bateman, McEvoy, and Naomi DeLucco as the mysterious ingenue). Together Pieper and his performers have transformed Night Coil into something far greater than Jones intended: this isn’t just an obscure theatrical allegory of Jung’s ideas or a rote exercise in absurdism but a subtle, highly nuanced ballet of words and images. It may not unlock the mysteries of the mind, but it’s a powerful reminder of what has made Trap Door the vital off-Loop fixture it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beata Pilch.