The following review is courtesy of Peter Rachleff, Professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul:
Kommer poses two major questions: what is reality? what is grief? I think it is most interesting to consider these as two axes, and then to explore what happens at their intersection. Since the “reality” issue is posed by the piece’s form and the “grief” issue is posed by its content, exploring the intersection of these axes is a way to explore the relationships between the piece’s form and its content and, then, a way to ask whether the relationship between form and content reveals anything profound, interesting, or challenging itself.
The “reality” question seems inescapable and intentional. The first half of the piece is performed on stage by live “actors.” But the “characters” have little if any particular character, little if any particular history, and tend to follow each other’s movements and gestures. Moreover, the “characters” bear the names of the actual “actors.” It seems impossible to watch this and not wonder: are these actors performing roles and adhering to a script, or are these “real” people sharing/creating an experience of grief at the passing of a common friend?
In part two’s film, we see/hear the characters/actors/real people comment on what they have done this evening as a “performance,” there is mention of an audience, etc., so we then know that what we had witnessed in part one was a performance. But, then, in part two’s film, when we see the actors/real people in their “behind the scenes” lives, we cannot help but wonder, is this another performance or is this reality? Their own program notes suggest that in part two “the audience observes the actors in their individual ‘private’ lives,” but the form of the piece made me, at least, skeptical about this. Maybe the actor (Esther) who “played” the grieving friend in part one is “playing” a flight attendant in part two, or maybe she “really” is a flight attendant (don’t many actors have to have “day jobs” to pay the bills?), or…, or…
So, yes, the form of the piece as a whole is successful at destabilizing our (well, at least my) ability to differentiate between “reality” and “performance.” And it calls our attention to what it is doing while it does it. That all seems smart and potentially worthwhile to me.
Now, let’s turn to the other question, the other axis, grief (which is the title of the piece). In part one, the characters weave a collective experience and performance of grief over the sudden and unexpected loss of a common friend. Their gestures and movements, slow, deliberate, repeated, paint an interesting expression of grief as a mosaic of emotions, even as none of the characters stands out as an individual with particularly well-defined or notable reactions. This is a remarkably collective expression. I do think it works best when it is most physical and least well when it is driven by the dialogue. Given that we know next to nothing about these “characters” and even less about the deceased, it is interesting how part one’s performance tends to elicit a variety of emotions in the audience, from rapt attention to nervous titters to our own fidgeting.
In part two, which is film (although with some brief appearances by flesh and blood performers walking through doors or across the stage), there is no collective interaction at all. Each actor/character/person is depicted individually, on his/her way home, directly or indirectly, and appears quite alone, isolated, even lonely. I found myself responding to the sadness of their situations, even though they were on film rather than personally present in front of me. Were the characters/actors/persons on film “more real” to me than the actors/performers/characters who had been on stage just half an hour before?
These strike me as interesting questions and, in our climate of “reality TV,” “Survivor,” “American Idol,” and the like, and in our celebrity culture in which we act as if we “know” various people whom we see only on the screen, they seem worth asking to me. I suspect I will continue to mull this over as I reflect on Kommer over the next days.
But I also have a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction, of having been “had,” of having been encouraged to think something is substantial (“heavy,” my generation used to say) when it is actually pretty lite. There were a lot of moments, extended moments, in the dialogue in part one on stage and in many of the particular scenes in part two’s film, that seemed to me not to have been carefully thought through and enacted. They seemed designed to elicit laughs, to lighten the atmosphere of the grief-laden themes, or just to serve as filler. In these extended moments I felt unchallenged, off the hook, kind of “in the know” with the writers/actors/characters/persons. This, for me, was a problem. And I felt this problem acutely at the end, when the swelling music of Hair seemed to be directing my emotions, wink, wink, with a heavy dose of irony shared between writers/performers and audience.
This made me wonder how seriously the Kassys group took the very issues they were exploring, how seriously they took themselves, and how seriously they took the miserable state of the world in the year 2006. This is no time to let us, any of us, off the hook. When you have grabbed my imagination, when you might even have me by the throat, don’t let me sigh, laugh, wink and walk away.