Not surprisingly, Beginner, the new Erik Ehn work commissioned by the Undermain Theatre, is akin to a religious or spiritual experience. Ehn, a playwright fascinated with the iconography of religion, asks you to travel with him to parts unknown. To get something out of it, you have to give up something. To love it, you must first make a leap of faith.
I ended up loving it. But it took me a good 15 to 30 minutes to stop fighting the dense, sometimes difficult material. Once I let go of my expectations, I breathed deeply and was carried along a Rio Grande swarming with swimming and drowning immigrants, lost souls in the netherworld, exotic fish, the spirit of a nun in pointe shoes, corn doll husbands, chattering school girls, and an omnipresent altar boy who, for me, represents many things, from the beginner soul who knows all and nothing at the same time to Ehn as a young man.
The work is a triptych of haunting, dream-like, and prayerful tableaux of love and death in Texas. This work is different from the other Ehn work I've seen in that it is more the stuff of modern myth than modern reality.
Director Raphael Parry has written some helpful notes in the program so that the viewer can alter his or her expectations: the notes state that the plays are largely nonrealistic and inspired by images and events that Ehn shared with the Undermain on a series of road trips through Texas. The work is produced in what Parry refers to as the "Big Cheap Theatre" aesthetic. Ehn has stripped the theatrical event of spectacle, device, and artifice. Like the revolutionary performance artist Yvonne Rainier, Ehn has said no to theater in its most commercial sense. Yet the costumes and sets are lush and exotic nonetheless, richly glowing like a Santeria shrine. (Flowing scarves, tulle skirts, and votive candles go a long way for atmosphere. )
Because it was created with and for the Undermain, already one of the most intimate theater ensembles around, Beginner plays as if it is Ehn's gift to them. I felt like I was watching something very personal and very special. The acting was outstanding throughout, and the use of movement, song and dance was natural and fluid. (In the Undermain's inimitable starless style, the acting was generally excellent and thus no one stood out. The one exception was David Lugo Jr., who stole a few scenes with his dynamic presence as the sailor and the altar boy.)
I'm not sure how many other theater companies would be able to pull Beginner off. Ehn says he doesn't care too much what happens to a play once he writes it. He doesn't feel strong ownership over his work. However I would imagine for this to succeed anywhere else, Ehn would have to somehow be involved.
But here at the Undermain, it works. The stories, rife with Texan and Mexican folklore, resonate as true on some basic level. Beginner is broken into "Mine," a myth that explores the Texas/Mexico border and "the land of the dead." (In Ehn's view, the land of the dead is not the hell of Catholicism, but a netherworld of grandparents and children who are still searching for something or someone.) The second part, "This Little Play," is the haunting hallucinations of a WWII sailor, set in the Texas Hill country and other locations in the character's mind. The third, "Alphabets by the Sea," finds a way of bringing each of these dream-like, imagistic stories together.
Beginner commences with two girls playing in their school uniforms. They have just taken notes off the legs of three women dressed as carrier pigeons.
"What do they say?" says one girl.
"I can't read it. Birdscratch," says the other.
"Beginner," the birds respond.
"There are these: in school we have been learning about Mary in Egypt and about hell. Perhaps these are notes on how to get to hell and back. Three times. These are the ways people visit hell and fall in love. Because the world has turned out this way."
"I don't know," says the other girl
"Then go to sleep and maybe we'll figure it out in a dream."
The two girls set the tone for the audience, explaining things and confusing us at the same time. Their riddles pull us in, preparing us for some wild, fractured tales. They too watch the plays through a hole in the wall.
The first short play, "Mine," begins humorously enough with the ghost of Sister Chantal speaking to God. The almighty's face is covered with a Spanish lace mantilla, and his head is covered with a fedora. He is also drunk on corn liquor, and ends up asking the nun, who happens to be wearing a black leotard and pointe shoes, to dance part of The Nutcracker for him.
Sister Chantal watches over a little girl, Graciela, who has somehow made her way into the netherworld as she trekked from Mexico to Texas with her family. Graciela has come to see her grandfather again, but there is no way back. Meanwhile, the rest of her family are also about to meet with tragedy.
Graciela's mom and dad sing of the city they are trying to leave.
Outside our city is a city on fire
We live there
You can't drink the water or breathe the air
Cook millet over human feces
Heart spitted on a wire
Outside our city is a city on fire.
Beginner is filled with these kind of simple, poetic songs, so much so it could be classified a musical. When the material gets too tough to chew on, the repetition within the songs or lyric poems helps to drive a point or image home. Other times the songs act as dramatic emphases.
The "Mine" play is ultimately chilling and sad. In one of a series of drownings, the father drowns swimming across the river. The fish leap up and take him under.
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These plays, influenced by magic realism as much as surrealism, are not easy to review or describe. They are easy to get your arms around in the sense of an embrace, but not easy to summarize or interpret in the traditional sense. It is best to let Ehn's newest work wash over you. If you wish to tear it apart, you will need Jung's ghost by your side.
Yet there are ways in which Beginner is child-friendly, and could be appreciated by young, open minds. Watching it, I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia, Texas-style. It is not that Ehn has a hidden Catholic or religious agenda. It is that he uses the icons and images of religion as mirrors to reflect the humor, joy and devastation of our desires.
In the end, Beginner is as archetypal as a dream in which you are swimming and swimming, only to find the shore drifting further and further away. Perhaps we do not dream as we die, alone. In Ehn's world, we dream together a collective dream, a dream of heartache, fear and loss, and the tight joy of love.
Beginner runs through this weekend at Undermain's Basement Theater. For information call 747-1424.