Curious Theatre Branch

In makes you work–I’ve just spent half an hour trying to figure out where to begin with it. This fascinating collaboration between writer Jenny Magnus and designer Liz Payne has no theme to tie its many dispar- ate elements together. Instead the suggestive material invites the spectator to in essence “finish” the work, to find meaning through his or her own response. In will be a different play for everyone who sees it.

To encourage a subjective response, Magnus and Payne divide the audience into three groups, and each group sees the performance in a different order. The three short plays that make up In–“#1,” “Hinting and Insinuation,” and an untitled segment–are performed simultaneously in different rooms. Each performance is repeated three times; the color of your program determines the order in which you see the plays. Clearly Magnus and Payne are not interested in a definitive work but in the discoveries the audience can make through variously combined elements.

As a member of the yellow-program group, I began in the basement with “#1,” a perverse monologue performed with unsettling naivete by Beau O’Reilly. He tells us the long history of his relationship with his “number one,” from the shame his parents made him feel when he first pulled it out of his pants to show them to the series of complicated “mechanisms” he’s constructed to give himself maximum pleasure. Payne has devised an abrasive cartoon world for him that’s bright yellow, full of the harsh springs, coils, and spikes that make up his machines.

The speaker in “#1” continually seeks sexual gratification in an attempt to “really get inside the experience.” He is a man who desperately wants to know a genuine emotion, as his elaborate–but ultimately unfeeling–mechanisms sadly indicate. At the same time he feels the need to cover his tracks, to pretend that none of this ever happens even though there is no danger of anyone finding out. He hates his own shame–the only genuine feeling he seems capable of. O’Reilly’s cool, methodical delivery, staring individual audience members in the eye for minutes at a time, gives the performance an intensity at once comical and terrifying.

Next I saw “Hinting and Insinuation,” a quasi medical lecture/demonstration performed by Colm O’Reilly. Seated before two white screens suspended from the ceiling and wearing a jacket and vest painted blood red, O’Reilly is a scientist who rearranges the sexual organs of his female patients. He tells us that “a woman’s body is not designed for maximum pleasure” and that he considers his disfiguring manipulations to be “a gift.” O’Reilly’s delivery is mannered and artificial, as stiff and unyielding as his painted suit.

When he disappears behind the screens, however, to portray other people in the story–the scientist’s next-door neighbor, a young boy whose mother the scientist victimized–O’Reilly adopts a more natural, realistic tone. It’s a curious turnabout: these realistic scenes are presented through artifice, since the actor appears only as a shadow on a screen, but when he actually appears before us as the scientist he’s highly artificial. In this world, as in the world of “#1,” the only way to approach a genuine experience is to hide behind an elaborate construction.

Finally I saw the untitled play, in which Magnus and Payne, dressed in white, sit in a white room; radio static plays in the background. Where “#1” presents a fairly straightforward kind of theater–a character addressing an audience in real time–and “Hinting and Insinuation” begins to fragment that theatrical “reality” in terms of character and time, the untitled work intentionally eschews theatricality. Next to nothing happens during this piece, though Magnus makes halfhearted attempts to find something to make this play “about.” While Payne, self-absorbed, applies another coat of white paint to the already white wall, Magnus, her handwritten script at her side, tries to muster some excitement as she reads about the childhood wonder of lying under the covers or her current fear of her “dangerous wandering body.” But her acting is lackadaisical at best (she keeps forgetting her lines), and the necessities of the moment (“Hey, Liz, you want some raisins?”) stifle her creativity.

This play presents an image of utter paralysis. We have in essence returned to the source, where the creators of this evening sit paralyzed; it’s as if the blank page or canvas has taken over the entire room. Coming last for my group, this untitled piece was a stunning conclusion to the evening; while these two creative minds sit trapped, unable to produce anything, we’re aware that their highly creative work goes on in the other rooms around us. It seems the perfect encapsulation of the terror that overcomes the artist after creation, of the sudden abyss that opens, reminding the artist that creativity may never come again.

All of the pieces have a cool, detached tone. In is a work of consummate detachment, examining the emptiness that can descend after passion has gone, or when passion is dormant (the men, for example, seem numb, totally unaware of the violence they perform against themselves and others). Yet the piece is deeply felt. Ultimately In is about longing, about desire when the object of desire is somehow impossibly distant.