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Mysteries of the Vernacular

There is a place in theater for talky received naturalism. A lot of very good actors were trained in it and are comfortable with it, and their bravura performances often justify what is a high charge-per-minute for a form more gracefully expressed in television and novels. Proof is very nicely written and confidently structured, and Dinner With Friends is a careful examination of a dilemma relevant to the lives of many—it is wrong to dismiss these plays; they are hard-working and artful, and they have genuinely satisfied an honorable and intelligent portion of their audience.

Photograph by Paula Court. Courtesy of Soho Rep.

But theater can be potent. There is a theater where language is compressed and revelatory, where images have heft, a theater that is entertaining, astonishing, and true. A number of just-emerged playwrights are twisting and pulling at the form and revealing a world which is both intimately familiar and surprising, a world which cannot be resolved in a satisfactory manner. Richard Maxwell’s very interesting works, House, Showy Lady Slipper, Caveman, Boxing 2000, have been getting a lot of attention with their striking formalism of the well-conceived ordinary. Melissa Gibson’s [sic] and Shufu Theater’s The Southworld (an evening of theater) open this fall and make ingenious use of a highly charged vernacular and a persuasive non-dramatic structure. It is necessary to see these plays: they are important, and challenging, and deeply delightful.
MAN: do you
do you eat some
fresh fish?

WOMAN: Fish?

MAN: Fish.
It’s famous.

WOMAN: Yes. I love it.

Shufu (Japanese for “housewife”) Theater emerged from playwright Madelyn Kent’s work tutoring Japanese women whose husbands had been transferred to the United States for business. The texts arose in improvisations Kent developed to help them practice English. She set the situation, and gave each character an identity, a previous incident, and a secret. The lessons shifted—“I don’t now how it happened,” Kent says—from ordering in restaurants, to an aging husband shopping for his young lover in the lingerie department (Kent took them to Macy’s, “It was a good exercise in comparative adjectives: ‘lacier,’ ‘silkier’…”), to an aging singer trying to persuade her milkboy to steal medicine from her. Kent began writing them down.

She initially used a tape recorder, but didn’t like the sense of removal—“It made me feel like an anthropologist”—and chose to record by hand: “I found that I was more sensitive to what they were saying when I was writing it down with them.” The result is a text that is, she estimates, 95 percent exact: “They spoke slowly and I have a very fast hand.”

In Enoshima Island—developed in collaboration with Michiko Kusaki, Yukiko Sakata, and Yuko Takamori—a man returns to the small island community in which he grew up. He gets a haircut. He meets a woman on the pier, waiting for the ferry. They go for a walk. There is a darkness and a sense of danger to the most inoccuous scenes, as if wild slippage of language might lead to an equally sudden slippage of behavior. The texts have the bouncy disjunctive interest and occasional hilarity of the Japanese English found on candy packages and electronic instruction sheets—not a failed English, but an idiom all of its own—and the real and unexpected poetry of meaning squeezing itself into being.

MAN: Do you think—how ’bout this island?

WOMAN: I love this island.

MAN: But it’s nothing.

WOMAN: I love it because it’s nothing.

MAN: You look gorgeous.
There are no shops.

WOMAN: I don’t want those things all the time.
Sometimes I need to be
To be like this place
Don’t you think so?

Photograph by Paula Court. Courtesy of Soho Rep.

These pictures have the infectious energy and genuine unpredictability of work developed through improvisation. At the same time they have all the power that non-theater artists can bring to the form. As Kent observes, “In improv, everyone is always trying to be smart or funny; it’s because that’s what they are.” The women work to create, not theater, but a situation defined by language. “There is this effort to never work against the other person, to always carry the other person, not to block them.” The texts are permeated by the quality of deep attention the actors are giving to one another, and by the urgency they bring to the challenge of speech.

What makes these plays more than marvelous curiosities, or an example of theatrical coincidence, is the extent to which the act of observation really is the first principle of authorship. Kent’s own plays are invariably mysterious, regretful, exquisite, deeply idiosyncratic, haunted, and shot through with sudden flashes of wild humor. These texts are a logical development of her work; the way that she has heard the language creates it. “I’m interested in the effort to be understood,” Kent says. In the Shufu texts, “When they don’t connect it’s not in the traditional two-people-don’t-see-eye-to-eye way. Instead, it’s a more universal displacement.”

WOMAN: What makes you so< So
Sad or
I think something
some thing trapped.
Something in your mind.

Says Kent of her co-collaborators: “They’re excited to see it but they don’t know what to make of it. They think it’s a strange, strange project.”


FRANK: She played loud music Babette
At all hours She was constantly
reciting poetry in that remarkable late octogenarian chain-
smoking tenor voice of hers But she didn’t
recite thegood modern ones she Noooooo
she didn’t have the decency Mostly
she picked that old windbag Whitman
I’m sorry I know its sacrilege to say but

Melissa Gibson’s [sic] (not to be confused with the currently running Sic) is the story of Theo, thwarted composer; Babette, who is this close to completing the novel that will, you know, blow it all wide open; and Frank, who is teaching himself to become an auctioneer through a cassette learning series. Gibson’s language is a compression of the ingeniously observed and the ingeniously created, and she totally captures what it is to open one’s mouth: the struggle to be apt and powerful; the constant hedging for an effect; the attempt—often a failure—to use really good words; the completely reflexive use of humor, common ironies, and fleeting impersonations. The actual spoken language that we use is never straightforward and it is never unconsidered; it is an insane and utterly ungrammatical stew of references and temperatures that reveals far more than it is meant to reveal, and barely succeeds in communicating our most basic emotions, let alone serving our desires, and Gibson has created an idiom that is extravagant, taut, and accurate.

(From the stage directions: BABETTE “is searching through the pockets of clothes that are lying around her apartment,” THEO “accuses his synthesizer with Germanic non-words of disgust,” “FRANK is seen in shadow behind his blind making exaggerated stretching movements with his mouth.”)

Set in the apartment building in which they all live, the play takes place in the hallways and stairwells, in back bedrooms, on the roof; doors open and close, words are misheard, conversations are only half completed, voices drift down the airshaft. Gibson has created a world only partly seen and understood, a world its hapless characters desperately try to organize through schemes, projects, crushes, mental mastication, and social maneuvering. It’s a shifting juggle of tactics, pulling from farce, vaudeville, grand opera, and sitcom. [sic] is structured, almost musically, through juxtaposition and incongruity. Moments that are intimate, and either ridiculous or heartbreaking, bleed into the baroquely theatrical; simultaneously burst into synchronicity.

Photograph by Paula Court. Courtesy of Soho Rep.

FRANK: Belligerent Beulah bellowed bloody bombast
Belligerent Beulah bellowed bloody bombast
Belligerent Beulah bellowed bloody bombast
(Theo plays around on the synthesizer. Eventually he begins to croon.) THEO: Babette Babette you put
a hex on me
Babette Babette why not
have sex with me

(Darkness) (Babette, pencil in hand, hovers over a manuscript of her “Outbursts” text, and reads aloud.)

BABETTE: 1457 a cell full of monks hunched over myriad ecclesiastical texts they are diligently recopying/ Brother Theodore Klotz stands suddenly as he hurtles his quill to the stone floor and shouts/ I’ll Be Fucked if I’m Transcribing One More Word/ The next day Brother Klotz visits his friend Johann Fust/ son-in-law of Johann Gutenberg/ They share a bottle of claret Movable Metal Type is born (Darkness)
(Three bathrooms. Babette is perched on the side of her bathtub. She is shaving her legs. Frank and Theo are shaving their faces in their respective bathrooms. We see all three of them through the reflection of their mirrors.)
FRANK: Why auctioneering I want my words to
BABETTE: When I went to work in an office I spent my day
negotiating my way
through a sea of people who kept
repeating and repeating
in one way or another
the same five words
the Mistake is Not Mine THEO: And I mean the whole experience of dissolution
of dissolving leads one inevitably to try to
identify The The
Dissolvent because
I thought we were profoundly happy Beth and I
FRANK: It’s not that I plan to start using words like Humdinger or
THEO: I learned sadly enough that profound happiness is itself a
BABETTE: The Mistake Is Not Mine
FRANK: It’s not like I’ll start walking around saying
Mighty to modify Fine
THEO: I guess I just wish I was back at the skating rink
BABETTE: What I was never able to express
much to my regret is that the mistake
is precisely what is of interest
(Babette, Frank and Theo all cut themselves shaving)

[sic] is playful, deeply smart, funny, awfully sad, and amazing. It is a world without a theory or guiding theme, a world that cannot be entirely organized or controlled by either its characters or its audience.

SHUFU THEATER’S The Southworld plays October 18, 19, and 20 at WAX (Williamsburg Art neXus), 205 N. 7th St., Brooklyn (718) 599-7997. Melissa Gibson’s [sic] opens November 17 at SoHo Rep, 49 Walker St., NYC (212) 479-7999.


Anne Washburn

Anne Washburn's transadaptation of Euripides' Orestes runs through April 11.


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