What Didn't Happen
Call me conventional, call me coarse, call me crazy, but I prefer my drama, oh, I don't know, dramatic. Give me a plot with a narrative structure that makes me eager to discover what happens next. Give me characters that are as clever as they are round, who search for meaning as they meander through what might otherwise be an aimless existence. Give me obstacles that need to be overcome, dialogue that needs to be spoken, climaxes that need to be reached. Suspend my disbelief, for God's sake. Make me tearful, joyful, hopeful, hateful, but engage my emotions in some kind of theatrical spectacle so I can come away from the experience affirming or doubting humanity's claim on my soul.
But don't offer me a play that has no plot, no characters, no real dialogue and expect me to be moved or entertained or blown away by the boldness of its stroke. Don't offer me the freedom to find my own meaning in a performance piece hell-bent on obscuring all meaning. Which may be what the courageous Our Endeavors Theater Company expects by its reprise of Gertrude Stein's un-play What Happened, a one-act play in "five acts" whose earlier incarnation last summer received good notices at the Bath House Festival of Independent Theaters. Paired with What Happened is the more accessible Fortitude by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., which Our Endeavors previously produced at the 2000 festival. That the two plays should inhabit the same double bill within the Undermain Theater seems more a commercial choice (both sets were built and in storage) than a thematic one--but that would likely have pleased Gertrude Stein, who couldn't give a whit about themes or relationships or context in her play.
Stein, the "mother of modernism," the mentor of Hemingway, the lover of Alice B. Toklas, claimed there was nothing new under the sun--no new stories to tell, no new characters to create. So in 1913, she wrote a play that didn't just push the envelope of traditional theater, it tore it to shreds, deconstructing dramatic device and convention as a way of inventing a formless form. Her words have no meaning, her characters are numbered rather than named, her story has no progression--no beginning, middle or end, no unity of action, place or time--though she claimed it takes place in the present. What she was trying to ape in her writing was the cubism found in Picasso's art: dissecting, analyzing and reassembling in some kind of abstract form words, movement and action.
All that is noble and good, a mighty experiment in language and form, but the mind naturally associates, seeks meaning, structures order out of chaos. So when listening to Stein's wordplay or watching Scott Osborne's mood-setting direction or following a cast of hardworking actors moving herky-jerky or gracefully about the stage, it seemed as though the audience was engaged in a collective shoulder shrug. The only thing missing was an audible "huh?"
How else can you respond to: "Length what is length when silence is so windowful. What is the use of a sore if there is no joint and no toady and no tag and not even an eraser?" Stein's answer would be: Any damn way you want. Director Osborne concerns himself more with evoking feeling, tone, rhythm and movement from the words, rather than extracting any literal meaning. His actors were dissuaded from making obvious choices and connections from which the audience might be directed toward a specific purpose or intention.
Yet Rachel Eiland-Hall plays a purposeful and powerful Gertrude Stein (ostensibly), holding court much like Stein and Toklas did in their studio at 27 Rue de Fleurs in Paris for the writers and artists of their day. Most notable (for what I am not exactly sure) is Mark Farr, who plays an ostensible Hemingway, all swaggering and sensual and nonsensical. No actor, however, makes any obvious or lengthy attempt to connect with the audience or any other actor, for that matter, projecting outward and upward, indulging pauses and responding with dialogue more for its sound and rhythm than out of any desire to communicate meaning.
Truth is, nothing much happens in What Happened, which is, of course, Stein's way of being whimsical and of mocking traditional theater. If this were a poem, which is more disposed to mood and language, it just might work. As a play, it's no play but rather a challenging academic exercise for actors. In terms of crowd appeal, it only registered polite applause from what is generally an enthusiastic opening-night audience. To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, there was just "no there, there."
More successful was Fortitude, a wacky science-fiction tale that might have seemed fresh in its day (1968), with its right-to-die theme and its mechanical body parts supporting a life that no longer wants supporting. But with movies like A.I. and with cyborgs standard fare on each new generation of Star Trek, seeing a woman's head mounted on a lazy Susan, with aluminum ductwork for arms, battery cable clips for hands and crude machines metabolizing her every bodily function seems retro at best. It's the kind of retro, however, that perfectly matches the cheesy camp of the piece.
Our Endeavors actually leads its double bill with Fortitude, which was originally written by Vonnegut as a short story for Playboy magazine. Linear in its progression, the play details the plight of Sylvia Lovejoy (played by Cindy Beall), a wealthy 100-year-old woman who has had one organ after another replaced by the miracles of modern science--78 operations in 36 years. Her original anatomy has been reduced to a head, whose greatest pleasure is to have her hair done by her regular beautician Gloria. Lainie Simonton's rendition of Gloria could easily be cast in the next road show of Grease.
Lovejoy's emotions can be manipulated by a variety of drugs, which either sedate or elate her. Her long mechanical arms are also manipulated--these by puppeteers Jamie Richards (right arm) and Jessica Roberts (left arm), who are both hooded and dressed entirely in black--all to fine comic effect. "You can see what wonderful hands I am in," jokes Lovejoy. Actress Beall makes an admirable head, changing emotions--from suicidal despair to drug-induced complacency--on a dime.
But it's Dr. Norbert Frankenstein (John Flores), her doctor and mechanical engineer, who drives the plot, keeping his only patient alive for selfish reasons. She reminds him of his mother, he says, who had "cancer of the everything." He couldn't keep Mom from dying, but he's not about to let that happen to Lovejoy, in whom he also has a romantic interest. Flores is remarkable as Frankenstein, playing the demented scientist by successfully alternating between mad and madcap. His delivery is impeccable, his motivation eerily suspect. Director Mark Farr (a.k.a. Hemingway) keeps things gothic yet comic, rich in detail but broad in humor.
The play does, however, feel dated, its resolution somewhat predictable, which admittedly tends to validate Gertrude Stein's thesis: There are no new stories. That said, if given the choice, I'd still take Fortitude over What Happened. At least something happens in Fortitude, and it's all in the telling, anyway.
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