at Edge of the Lookingglass

Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting during his life. He never found his audience. He was not taken seriously.

I jotted these lines in my notebook near the end of Doorika’s In a Way It Was a Crisis. I saw the show twice, so confused and haunted by the performance that I returned a second night. Both times, the audience numbered less than ten. At Doorika’s debut production last winter, North of the Lake on the Seventh Day (which I also saw twice), the audience was equally small. Doorika has not found their audience. They are not taken seriously. Yet they are a group of extraordinary genius.

Doorika’s genius lies in their theatrical language. In a Way It Was a Crisis is made up of seemingly “realistic” theatrical scenes, except that the scenes are never given a specific or recognizable time or place, and the characters speak in what for the most part seem to be non sequiturs. So on one level, the show doesn’t make any sense at all.

The ostensible story of the piece–though to say that the piece has a story is necessarily to reduce the beautiful complexity of it–follows a young woman named Strauss (Debbie Shirley), rather desperate after a breakup with her terminally ill 28-year-old lover Nelson (William Wright). In a series of what may be flashbacks, we see Nelson’s effete life of pure leisure and decadence (he wears not one but two pairs of silk pajamas at a time), a life paralleled in one section of the piece to that of the 14th-century plague-ravaged French monarchy.

The non sequiturs that make up the scenes, though they don’t make logical sense, retain a deep emotional and intuitive truth. Early in the piece Strauss stands on a rail peering downward, as if preparing to jump off a bridge. With a frantic little giggle she says to her friends, “Don’t worry. You don’t know me.” With these words, she seems to reassure her friends that she will not jump while at the same time distancing herself from them, letting them know that the decision to jump is hers and hers alone.

The piece is built entirely of such moments, making the text (credited to performer John Dooley and director Erika Yoemans in collaboration with the ensemble) seem like a foreign language, a group of recognizable elements assembled into an incomprehensible configuration. In a way the language is purely poetic: while we attend to the metaphorical meaning of each statement, the characters seem to respond only to the literal. It’s almost as if they don’t know what they’re saying, don’t realize the profundity of the images in their pedestrian language.

The actors, though, clearly understand the most delicate nuances of the text–particularly Shirley and Wright, whose performances do much to anchor this production. Strauss, Nelson, and their filmmaker friend Penelope (Liv Grey) spend much of their time in dance clubs or in Nelson’s apartment, trying to understand Nelson’s impending death and their own anger over it. They even go so far as to make a film about a fictional, soon-to-be-executed French royal family in order to understand their feelings (or perhaps this scene isn’t a film at all, but rather a play-within-a-play). Throughout the proceedings a man referred to as Larson (Dooley) lurks at an exposed control table, where he runs the lights and sound and seductively describes the action into a microphone.

This is a world where the knowledge of impending, premature death sends people running from their true feelings. Or perhaps these people are so unprepared for such a tragedy that they simply don’t know how to feel. Just as the nearly crazed French royals try to maintain some sense of normalcy and dignity while their power base and their sense of self crumbles around them, Strauss and her friends try to process this horror with the tools available to them. Strauss laments to Nelson, “Your life will be immortalized in songs, novels, performance monologues, installations, and TV movies-of-the-week.”

Perhaps, then, In a Way It Was a Crisis is about how people seemingly unconnected to the “real world” deal with a real-world crisis. On a literal level, the piece is exactly that: Doorika’s attempt to express what it feels like to be living in the time of AIDS–an attempt that admirably avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality or sensationalism.

Such a reading leaves out a good deal of material that could probably be used to refute everything I’ve said. I don’t claim to have a thorough grasp of this piece, only lingering impressions. But the remarkably talented cast, which also includes John Worful, speak this foreign language in a way that allows the deeper associations of the lines to resonate. It’s a dense task, and the actors perform it effortlessly. They act these scenes realistically, as if everything here made perfect sense, as if this were everyday language.

The literal and the metaphorical are fully present in every moment of the show, yet each seems to deny that the other is there at all. The show can only be understood as the collision of these two elements, as the poetic and the prosaic resonate but never resolve. Everything is left open-ended and ambiguous, fluttering between the real and the imaginary, the concrete and the symbolic. The show never explains itself. Nothing here can be reduced to a simple statement.

This is by no means a perfect piece: The show loses momentum during its last 15 minutes (with the exception of Nelson’s riveting final monologue). The French monarchy scene seems scattered (with the exception of Shirley’s rock-solid performance as the petulant princess). Watching In a Way It Was a Crisis can be enormously frustrating, but mostly because we as audience members have been trained to expect clarity, singularity, and certainty from theater. We are often unable or unwilling to read a theater piece in the way we read dance. Doorika demands this of us, and it may be quite a while until we can truly see what Doorika is showing us.