Sunday, March 11, 2007
Second Person, Singular
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this…
Or, at least, you would not ordinarily volunteer for anything that resembled the excruciating predicament of audience involvement. But here you are all the same. Excited. Nervous. Curious. That pretty dark-haired, dark-eyed girl speaks to you by name and asks if you have remembered to bring your pass. You hand over the little folder for her to check. It has a title, Everyman, and has the name of a theatre company, Single Thread, but apart from that, it looks less like a theatre ticket than a passport (to “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns”?). Then she takes your coat and hat and gloves and locks them away in a chest. (A coffin for your clothes?) She chats with you in a friendly way, but she knows that you’ve come here to die. So, she’d like to make you comfortable, but there’s only so much, really, that she can do.
She takes you downstairs into the basement of the church, where there is a single theatre seat that faces a closed door, and she leaves you there, alone. Then the sounds begin that will continue intermittently throughout the next (last) hour of your life: strange music, fragments of speech, mechanical noises --- odd, peripheral sounds, like rats scuttling in the walls of your mind, dragging fragments of the daylight world behind them like long vaguely nauseating tails.
Then a glow appears behind the door and muffled voices are heard, and still you wait, wondering whether you should open it or not. But at last you do. And it has begun.
There, in a white room, is the girl from the lobby. And you feel relieved to see her in this new world at first, like Alice does in seeing the White Rabbit she has followed. And the room is full of other people, some of whom you know from the real world, but they seem to be a little out of their senses, acting like profoundly autistic people, except for a gaunt and pale figure in a dark suit in one corner, and an attractive but intimidating woman in another who is reading. And, in another corner there is a little puppet theatre, where, after a moment, a rather silly finger puppet show begins, enacting the opening scene from the medieval morality play, Everyman, in the vaguely modernized text by John Gassner. It’s amusing but trivial, and could become tiresome. But, when the woman slams the book shut, the tone in the room becomes much more intense. Because it is around that time that they start speaking to you. Death is coming after you. And you are forced to move from room to room, from Fellowship’s basement apartment, to the middle class suburban dining room of your Cousin and Kindred, to the somewhat claustrophobic and almost disgusting room of Goods, stuffed full of appliances and toys, like the squalor of the student residence room of an overindulged grown child.
But still, through all this, you are thinking about what is being done. About how Liam Karry, the director, has made his choices. About how each of the actors has played impressively, with commitment. About how the experience is a little like death itself, in that we know in a general way what is in store for us, but really nothing about the specifics. And you are thinking, recurringly, about how self-conscious you are of the experiment, much as you were when you read Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City, which was written entirely in the second person singular (opening with the line "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this...")
But then, suddenly you are pushed through a door and you are left in complete and utter darkness. And there is no sound at all for a moment. Nothing. And for a moment too, you have no idea where to go. Because of the maze of rooms you’ve been through already, you really would have no idea how to make your way backwards through the darkness, even if the door had not closed behind you. So you grope about yourself and realize that you are in a hallway. Then, out of the darkness ahead of you, you hear someone crying out in pain, calling for your help, quietly at first and then more loudly and urgently.
And so, having no other choice, you make your may forward, gropingly, until you come to the room where Good Deeds lies, on the ground, and with a little horror you recognize that he is on a crucifix. And, although this again makes you think about (and admire) the director’s choices, you suddenly also realize that, in that dark hallway, when what you had to do and what Everyman had to do were one and the same thing, the nature of your involvement changed. You lost your formerly inescapable sense of detached irony for a moment, and you were in the midst, playing along in earnest. And this will be your guide for how to approach the rest of the journey. Good Deeds and Knowledge will be of great help in this, because the actors play their roles with a degree of earnestness that makes you ashamed of your petty irony. And when you encounter Confession, you have been emotionally moved enough that you find yourself solemnly wishing that you knew how to utter contrition in a manner commensurate with the moment --- that, in effect, your upbringing was not Protestant. So that, by the time you are taken down a long, dark, dank tunnel, and left in your grave to lie and listen to the faint, remote ticking and rattling of a world beyond your darkness, you have, indeed, thought upon your own mortality.
And when, at last, the light literally at the end of the tunnel begins to glow, and you follow it to the room in which you recover your clothes and then climb the stairs through the cellar door ("the most beautiful phrase in the language") up into the snowy night, and the cold fresh air strikes your face as you see your breath appear in the moonlight, you are overwhelmed by the exhilarating feeling of just how good it is to be alive.
I lifted a couple of production photos from Alex Dault's page on Facebook. So sue me. The one at the top is of Annie Briggs as Confession. If you are going to get down on your knees and make yourself abject before a woman, you really do want her to be someone like Annie Briggs. In the photo immediately above are Adam Wray and Fernanda Fukamati as Kindred and Cousin. They were wearing clothes when I went through, so I can only surmise that they have exaggerated ideas of the degree of formality my dignified presence requires.
I apologize for how long it has taken to make this posting. In fact, I would have made it a month ago, immediately after I saw the show, but I was sworn to divulge nothing about the show to anyone for as long as it was still running (36 performances for 36 individual audience members). But my imagination can be stubborn, and because it was this posting it wanted to make, it refused to offer up any alternatives. And then, when the run of the show was over, I had so many obligations to fulfill that this had to go on a back burner. But I intend to allow much less time to elapse before I post again.