“The past is a grotesque animal
And in its eyes you see
How completely wrong you can be”
— Of Montreal “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”
In memory, life and fiction overlap. Moments once experienced from an already embedded and imperfect vantage point are subject to further manipulation; key details are sharpened while others are forgotten. One’s past, although completed in time, evolves through these reinterpretations and recallings, ever newly infused with the emotions and interests of the present. Mariano Pensotti draws on this concept and Of Montreal’s song “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” for his play of the same name, explaining that the “past arises in this play as an animal glimpsed in our dream jungle. An animal that changes shape each time we remember it. A grotesque animal.”
Following the final performance of this show and the Walker’s Out There series, a group of audience members gathered in the McGuire Theatre’s balcony bar for a SpeakEasy, an informal conversation about the evening’s performance. This week’s discussion was facilitated by Erin Search-Wells of SuperGroup and Walker Art Center tour guide Florence Brammer. Themes and comments from that conversation are highlighted through this blog and continued commentary in this online forum is encouraged.
“I author my own disaster” — Of Montreal
Pablo steps out of his front door to find a package containing a severed hand. As we follow his life through Pensotti’s play, we witness Pablo’s increasing unbalance and demise, all initiated by a seemingly random event. For many of Pensotti’s characters, singular moments or actions spur narratives that take years to unfold. We visit each person on significant and mundane dates over a decade. Hopes arise, disappointments are accepted, and what resonates is perhaps not the grandness of life or the simple beauty of the banal, but rather a bitter critique, life presented as a pathetic series of mishaps and responses strung together through time. Beyond a dramatic tool, the severed hand comes to represent disconnect, frustration, and incompleteness.
Yet what emphasis ought to be placed on the “accidental” nature of life’s events? Can hope be found in this play through the agency of individuals to determine outcomes or meanings? While unexpected events can turn the course of a life, perhaps Pablo’s tragedy is not in having found the hand, but in his Hamlet-like indecision over how to cope with his situation. The characters we follow struggle with taking ownership over their lives, yet the unforeseen nature of events does not overpower the impact of each choice. At times they make bold decisions, at other times they seem to flounder, uncertain of what to do and desiring only to maintain a veneer of normality despite internal turmoil.
Pensotti does not present us with a “beginning” or “end,” we are instead offered a series of snapshots between 1999 and 2009, during a time when his characters range in age from 25-35. This phase in life provides an added significance, described by Pensotti as the period during which “one stops being who one thinks one is to become the person one is.” Through this process, we see the push and pull of influences; lives driven by a combination of events and responses, wherein characters never fully arrive, but rather navigate a constantly altering terrain.
We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic – Of Montreal
Though the stories told abruptly shift location, characters, and date, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” offers a series of throughlines for the audience to follow. A rotating stage divided into quadrants allows a broad array of locations as a stage crew quickly alters the sets out of view of the spectators. This movement not only creates the illusion that the action for any one group of characters never stops, it also provides a visual representation of the continual and constant march of time. As we follow stories and minor moments through a decade, we are nevertheless reminded of the larger trajectory of time, mortality resting as a final endpoint for characters that would ultimately disappear from a stage continuing to spin like the earth on its axis, ad infinitum.
As actors shift characters from scene to scene, they take turns embodying the role of a narrator who summarizes and contextualizes the action. Pensotti likens this element to a “voice-over that could give sense to the scattered fragments of a film that is lost forever.” In the present, the past takes on a clear progression invisible to those engulfed by the flow of on-going events. Diverging from the standard, removed narrator, commentary occasionally comes from within a scene, by a character spewing a tense internal monologue for the audience while engaging in pleasantries within the vignette. Beyond memory itself as an amalgamation of reality and fiction, we are herein presented with another nuance – the division between internal and external realities. The common ground of polite social discourse through which the characters interact is itself shown to be fiction, with a very different “real drama” taking place within the mind of the character.
Things could be different but they’re not – Of Montreal
Pensotti’s comment that “we are what we narrate” has manifold implications – the fiction of who one tells oneself one is, the reality that is the outcome of one’s action, or the stories one tells oneself through memory about both. As the stage makes its final rotation, each quadrant is shown to be empty – a set of place-holders waiting to be created, populated, and transformed as well as a reminder that conditions, norms, and practices could “always be otherwise,” and yet they are not, leaving the open-ended question “why?”
Lightsey Darst’s article on the Walker’s Out There Series
SAVE THE DATE:
The next SpeakEasy will be held on February 18 to discuss Bill T. Jones’ Story/Time.