Cutting Ball Theater’s terrific season continues this week with the opening of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) by Will Eno, and if you go this Friday March 13, as unfortunately I cannot since I will be listening to the Brentano Quartet, you can also attend a 6:30 Q&A with Eno, director Marissa Wolf, and Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose.
The season opened with an excellent production (directed by Rob) of Victims of Duty, an Ionesco play that made me realize he was more than Mr Rhinoceros and Bald Soprano, but first I’m going to talk about seating. So I sit down in my reserved seat, with the middle aisle on my left. To my right is a prune-faced crow who immediately starts complaining to her husband, as if I’m not sitting right there able to hear every word, even though my presence appeared to be the crux of her whining, about how crowded she is and no she didn’t want to switch because that wouldn’t help and I’m right on top of her.
I had a bit of sympathy. It’s not easy going through life feeling physically dwarfed and threatened, and it’s possible an old woman would feel that more than a man (though a man is just as, if not more, likely to be physically threatened). There she was, petitely sandwiched between two men, though both were taking care not to touch her, and I should point out her husband was roughly my size except overweight. And clearly it had been at least forty years since anyone had been right on top of her. Maybe I should have worn long sleeves. I had the distinct impression my bare biceps were disturbing her flesh in some way.
But I am extraordinarily careful not to intrude on other people’s space. And I’m not exactly the most massive guy around; I see plenty of men at the theater who are taller or bigger, yet less considerate. I don’t know what she would have done if I had actually been fat and slopping into her seat (something that has happened to me several times), instead of just larger than she liked. So I spent the performance tense with the intrusive consciousness of her proximity. What really gets me is that there was an empty seat next to her husband and she could easily have asked him to move over and thereby solved all our problems. Stupid bitch.
I mention all this not just because her behavior was rude and irritated me (though it was and it did) or because the space-sharing issue comes up all the time in theaters (though it does). I mention it because of the odd way in which this exchange acted as prelude and mirror to the play we were about to see, in which Choubert, a fairly mild-mannered middle-aged man (played by David Sinaiko the night I saw the play, and I’m glad to say that in his last few roles he is resisting the temptation to rely on crazy energy and is instead giving subtler, more modulated performances; also, in this case his older appearance really worked in the context of the play, which I felt was to some extent about aging and isolation) is suddenly confronted with an ominous and somehow sexually threatening intrusion from the outside in the form of The Detective (the always excellent Ryan Oden) who calls on him and Madeleine, his wife (the always ditto Felicia Benefield). So many of the labels slapped on art movements – Gothic, fauvist, impressionist, minimalist, absurdist – started out as dismissals. The so-called theater of the absurd is really a more accurate picture of our lives than what passes for realism. When Madeleine starts bringing in cup of coffee after cup of coffee after cup of coffee, it’s really just our daily routines in time-lapse. It’s slapsticky, but also, to me, a poignant echo of I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. This feels much more like life than those plays with carefully “little” remarks and artfully ordinary sets.
Before I mention the set further, I should also praise the two actors in smaller roles, Lisa Woods as The Lady and the very talented Avery Monsen as Mallot with a “t” (the name makes sense if you see the play) and Nicolas d’Eu. I've praised Monsen before (click on the Cutting Ball label on the right) for his performances in Taming of the Shrew and Endgame.
I always love the Cutting Ball’s stage design, and I really appreciate that within their small theater and I assume small budget we always get beautiful, evocative sets instead of bare stages. The set for the Ionesco (by Michael Locher) was Choubert and Madeleine’s comfortably bourgeois and intellectual book-lined apartment (though I was amused to see several of the bumble-bee spines of Cliff’s Notes on the shelves).
The set for this season’s second play, Mud by Maria Irene Fornes, was also quite beautiful: racks of white shirts on two walls and of black shirts on a third, as if Salvador Dali had collaborated with Jean-Baptiste-Simeone Chardin (this one was designed by Liliana Duque). This play was the directorial debut of Cutting Ball Associate Artistic Director Paige Rogers, and the direction and acting were taut and intense to the finish. But I have to say I did not like the finish.
The play opens with Mae (Marilet Martinez) ironing one of the shirts, arguing with Lloyd (Alan Kaiser) her sick boyfriend/roommate. A third man, Henry (Garth Petal) soon joins the ménage. I don’t want to go into the plot too much because what makes the play interesting is not the plot, but the moment-by-moment shifts in and struggles for power and love among these three. Certain themes recur – the schoolbook describing the ocean that the woman struggles to read, arguments over who took whose money and how it’s going to be replaced, arguments over who is helpless and who needs to be helped.
At the very end, Mae decides she’s going to leave, and Lloyd, now recovered, grabs a gun and shoots her. The two men carry her back onstage and she dies, repeating one of the passages from her schoolbook heard earlier about starfish or something – something that clearly has now become a sentimental metaphor for her desire to escape, a metaphor that closes off everything we’ve just experienced.
It’s the melodramatic imposition of a “plot” and a “theme”; in the shadow of this ending, the play becomes “about” her yearning for a better life. The play changes from something that must be attended to and experienced, and becomes instead something we can wrap up in an easy, comfortable, and frankly tired and tiresome formula: “she tried to escape but of course the men had to stop her with violence.” This sentimental narrative doesn’t really match what we’ve seen; it just offers us a way to stop thinking about it. Until that ending, though, it’s a gripping work; I wish Fornes had avoided the easy solution at the end, but then endings are often difficult; how odd that the stagiest moment of a stage work should be the falsest.