Cool Buddha

Sitting on the stage of the McKinney Avenue Contemporary recently, playwright Erik Ehn evoked the presence of a visiting spiritual dignitary--calm, understated, full of humility.

"I'm as perplexed by the script as you are--so there," he said during the recent question-and-answer session for the MAC's Playwrights Project. "If my plays are frustrating in terms of meaning, that's because they're not trying to mean something. They're trying to be.

Aaah, yes, nodded his audience of believers.
"I'm trying to arrive at something pre-verbal, before language, like a trance," he added.

Yes, they nodded again.
Ehn sat centerstage, shoulders slightly hunched. The 37-year-old has a receding hairline, intense dark eyes, an open face, and the expression of an old soul. The audience at the MAC absorbed his challenging work and obfuscating language like hungry sponges. Perhaps he has been here before, and that's why he speaks in riddles and gets away with it.

Even one on one, Ehn has the magnetic pull of the old man on top of the mountain. Over dinner, he is as generous and gracious as he is inscrutable. When asked if he considers himself one of the American Surrealists, as he has been labeled, he takes a drink of his water, then talks about the principle of evasion and always being one step away from something. In terms of surrealism, he muses: "I don't know that I generate an ism. I don't mind being next to it but I don't want to be in it."

Aaah yes, I said, my head hurting a little.
If I didn't love Ehn's work, I might have rolled my eyes in disbelief at his psycho-spiritual approach to drama, or the pure density with which he expresses his ideas. After our dinner together, I gamely tried to get a grip on the multiplicity of influences and sources of his engagement--to little avail.

Finally, I realized that if a person can free-associate with exacting discipline and precision, that's what Ehn does in a conversation. On a more imagistic, sensuous level, I believe that's what he does with his plays too.

I have often been skeptical of writers like Ehn who say "the work chose me to write it..." perhaps because I await such a visitation without much faith myself. Yet I do believe that Ehn's plays have chosen him in many ways, and that he has something important, even prophetic, to say for our time. In his work he has learned how to throw away the literary debris, leaving only events and people so powerful, funny, and sad, they take your breath away.

Ehn said he used to write like a 50-year-old alcoholic. The problem was, he was only 21 and just drank a lot of beer. But the playwrights he'd been reading at Yale Drama School in the early 1980s were jaded drinkers writing portraits of tired lives. So that's how Ehn wrote.

Then the playwright had the first of his many epiphanies. He started clean slate--as a beginner. "Now I try to write like a four-year-old," he said.

In fact his newest work, commissioned by the Undermain Theatre in Dallas, is entitled Beginner. Directed by Raphael Parry, Undermain's co-artistic director, the piece also began tabula rasa, with no expectations or narrative outlines. Instead, Beginner began with road trips through Texas to Mexico. On those trips, Ehn explored the border towns--and the idea of borders--and satisfied his hunger for sacred and kitsch iconography by going to see the statue of the Virgin Mary who weeps tears of myrrh, among other sites of pilgrimage.

Members of the Undermain traveled with Ehn on his tour, and that's when their collaborative journey through Beginner commenced. (The play opens April 21 at Undermain's Basement Space.)

Ehn wouldn't allow their travels to be documented in any way; instead, he wanted the images and feelings to wash over them without being reduced to pithy remembrances in journal videos to send to PBS. Yet in the end, everything--including, I imagine, the arguments and personality clashes--fed the work.

Beginner is a triptych. The first play shows an affinity for the Persephone myth: a young girl's love for her grandfather drives her to follow him to the underworld. The second play is about falling in love in a more carnal sense, and in the third play, St. Nolan Ryan, patron saint of strike-you-out, makes his strange appearance.

Ehn's invention of characters like St. Nolan brings us to the other side of him and his work. While he seems almost monastic in spirit, and his penchant for martyrs borders on the zealous, he also has a healthy, postmodern irreverence toward all institutions--particularly Christianity. He sees the connections between his own work and that of a few other impish, "bad-boy" playwrights with whom he is often compared--his friends Mac Wellman and Jeff Jones. "We're like bad elves," Ehn said. "We like to pull the milk stool out from under the milk maid."

So just when Ehn seems to be the self-anointed high priest of drama, he checks himself and acts like your bowling buddy. His plays do the same, less self-consciously. Ehn, whose mother is part Comanche Indian, has an uncanny ability to evoke an earthy spiritualism next to the high rituals of Catholicism. They co-exist in his work, sometimes peacefully.

"Somewhere between faith and tackiness is the icon," Ehn said during his talk at the MAC, as he held up a novena card of St. Francis.

The playwright is so heavily fixated on the saints that he has written 50 of what he calls The Saint Plays. These days he is particularly interested in Saint Francis and Saint Thrse. Thrse fascinates him because she "died of consumption in her early 20s having done nothing much," he said. "But she wrote about 'the little way'--that you can gain access to Heaven by performing small acts well. I like that idea," Ehn said, as if, for a moment, he considered that his own mitzvahs might bring him eternal peace.

For Ehn is a man of good works. He is involved in community service (a preview performance of Beginner will benefit the North Texas Immigration Coalition). He and his wife are helping his wife's sister, a single mother, raise her child. As a dramatist, he is obsessed with children at risk and alcoholics, and they make haunting appearances in his plays. He said he writes about "alcohol, God, sex, and money. I could stop anyone on the street and I guarantee that person would have thought of those things that day," he said emphatically.

It's hard to disagree with the man.
What I remember most vividly about Ehn's Wolf at the Door: an alcoholic, absentee father finds his way home, but no one is there. He enters the abode anyway, and is caught in a desperate reverie. He lies on the kitchen table and curls his long, lithe body up in a fetal position, his soul at sea. The highly acclaimed play that Richard Hamburger first produced at the Portland Stage, and which Kelly Cotten brought to the Addison Centre Theatre last season, is full of beauty and mystery. It centers on a broken family, yet the piece soars above the sensation of modern dysfunctionalism.

Ehn writes prominently about dysfunction, like most writers. Unlike less capable contemporaries, he doesn't get caught in that mode; his work avoids becoming a smug therapy session on how much families suck. In Wolf at the Door, most of the characters have a certain amount of grace as well as darkness. It is hard to leave a good production of the play exactly the same person.

Beginner, his new play, is about love. Ehn perceives love to be a lot like theater, in that "love involves a transformation of the heart. People resist theater and love," he added, "because they fear transformation."

Interestingly, Ehn also sees theater as fairly rarefied--in the way one falls in love only once, or a few times. "Theater is a pretty specialized art form. The Greeks only went to see theater once a year. I don't know if I could hear a new Beethoven symphony once a week. People beat themselves up for not going to plays," he added. "But there are probably too many plays."

Aren't you putting yourself and some very nice artistic directors out of business, I asked.

"You should only stage a production when you feel like it, instead of this idea that we're going to have six productions every season," said the high priest.

Even theatergoers will be relieved that Ehn gives them absolution for not attending more productions. At the same time, he thinks all theater should be more like a dinner party.

For Ehn, Undermain's Beginner will be much like hosting a Thanksgiving feast. As an audience member, you'll leave it gratified and warm--or disturbed and upset by someone's antics. All Ehn cares about is that it doesn't leave you quite the same as when you sat down.