To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on The Evening by Richard Maxwell/New York City Players. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Let’s place comic books on the proverbial opposite side of the coin from theater. Both media have intuitive mechanisms for engaging the reader and audience, respectively, with medium-specific holes or gaps in what is presented to the viewer. In both, the audience looks for cause-and-effect relationships to imaginatively fill in these gaps–which skilled artists and writers in either medium exploit and leave open to the imagination. In literature, for example, readers imagine the sights and sounds of books with only the printed words as suggestions. The holes in theater and comics are particularly interesting since they seem to be close inversions of each other.
The mechanism of comic books engages the reader by showing framed, still images of the world it presents–the environment, the characters, what they say and think–leaving the reader to fill in how the characters move between frames, how they speak and sound, and justify the larger-than-life actions that occur. An example:
Frame 1: Character A rears back from Character B, fist clenched.
Frame 2: A zoomed-in image of Character A’s hand making contact with Character B’s face. (“Pow!”)
Frame 3: A zoomed-out image of the entire planet Earth as seen from outer space. Character B flies into the frame, as indicated by a motion line originating somewhere in the center of the North American continent.
What a gift! We don’t say, “That’s impossible,” “Nobody could…”, “Nobody would…” It’s up to the reader to justify the physics of the situation. Conclusion: He was punched into space. Corollary: Superpowers. It’s why the ideal medium for space opera and mutant heroes is the comics: the most delicious action happens between the frames. There could be a series of frames between 2 and 3, showing “how” it happened–maybe breaking through the ceiling, or passing a flock of birds on the way up–but the closer to 24 frames per second, the closer to the comparison with real life (here, real physics). It says, “This is how it happened,” and it cannot be as grand as we’d ever imagine.
The mechanism of theater, on the other hand, shows how the characters speak and move, and suggests what they look like, but it is up to the viewer to build the world. The audience of The Evening fills in the details–not just the architectural details of the bar the characters inhabit (and mountain and ocean and outer space, but more on that later), but also their interior worlds, the emotional landscape that propels them to the behaviors they perform. Rather than actions in between frames, we fill in the emotional past and narrative future outside of the stage picture. An example:
Scene: Character A and B are dancing together. Character C joins them, instantly provoking a fight between B and C, which is just as quickly won. Cash is literally thrown around, they reconcile over jello shots, and then character A pulls a gun on them.
What a gift! Instead of saying, “That’s impossible,” “Why would she do that?”, “Where’s the motivation?”, we are invited to connect the dots on our own, through our own emotional and narrative understanding. This is what theater does best: the most delicious action happens in the interior worlds of the characters. How appropriate, then, this acting style that refuses to justify these (here it is again) larger-than-life emotions and behaviors. These are emotional superheroes, and they are capable of much more than justifiable in systems of realism, any more than we can justify punching someone into space. From Sarah Benson’s interview with Maxwell on the Walker blog: “Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people.” So this acting style is not merely a neo-Brechtian withholding of catharsis, this is giving us (like the comics) the imaginative license to fill in the gaps without showing us “how it really happened”. The beauty of archetype is that we’ve seen these characters before, hundreds of times. We don’t need Richard Maxwell to insist they actually sound like this, they move like this, etc.
So these archetypes—who are they? First we have Cosmo, the pleasure-seeker, the free-loader, the one who’s given up. “I want to get high. I use people.” He’s old, he wears a velour track suit and a gold chain, he’s carrying a pizza, he doesn’t give a shit. Then we have Asi, the fighter—a literal fighter (UFC) and an emotional fighter (misogynist). Cosmo tells him he should retire and Asi boxes his ears. He feels loss as a threat, he’s one of those insecure macho dudes, he feels the pressure of time running out. “I want to fight. I want one more fight.” Something has happened with him and the woman and he’s full of regret. Last we have Beatrice, the lone, young female—the seeker, the restless, the escape artist. The men order her around and she’s not surprised, she just gets them another beer. She wants to go to Istanbul, she’s been saving up. “I need to change camp.” She wears sequin shorts and she’s too big for this small town.
We’ve met them all before, and we’ve probably been them all before. They form a smooth surface for emotional projection. They’re a triangle of crossed desires, base-level drives that bounce off each other and ricochet off the drab walls. Both men kiss the woman the first time they enter. There’s a complicated history between them—Asi refers to when he and Beatrice used to live together, but they don’t anymore. Cosmo has given her money to go to Istanbul and Asi wants to know what she did for him that he gave her that money. They’ve all wronged each other but they’re resigned to sharing space.
And these archetypes, they’re like action figures that repeat one of five phrases every time you press a button. “I want to get high.” “I want to fight.” “I use people.” The woman mechanically opens a beer. The fighter draws back his fist again and again. The pleasure-seeker action figure is one of the kind that would walk straight into the wall and keep walking till his batteries ran out. We know who these people are because they tell us over and over. They can’t help themselves. “I want to fight one more time.”
The setting itself forms a spatial archetype in much the same way. We see terrible beige flats, the outline of a standard-issue small town bar. A TV plays sports silently in the corner, but it’s greenish like an Instagram filter and it blends in with its surroundings. A generic band plays off to the side, just loud enough for the performers to need to raise their voices, like you do. It’s just a sketch but we’ve been at that bar hundreds of times.
In fact, the quality of “sketch”–vis a vis these archetypes–is a mechanism to help viewers relate to the characters and situations. Comics use a range of drawing techniques, from photorealistic images to an outline as simple as a smiley face. The conceit is that the less “photorealistic” the image, the more relatable it’s supposed to be–so we see the bad guys drawn specifically and the protagonists drawn sketchily, and the reader identifies with the good. Functionally, the more specific they get, the less we can fill in, because they become objective realities rather than a subjective canvas. This extends to our trio in the bar: Any details, a hometown, a sibling rivalry, a favorite color, a penchant for scrapbooking, any desire beyond the most broad archetypal yearning, would make these characters into more objective “others”.
When you start looking, it’s hard to miss other connections to representational practices in comics. In addition to these open, pulpy characters, the exposed frame of the flats suggest a comic panel frame. The poses and choreographies of the characters are chock full of Brechtian gestus, gestures and still poses that show the “gist” of a relationship or attitude, distilling power structures into tableau-like arrangements. This recalls the still frames of comics, where position in frame must convey relationships and psychology when movement can only be represented by motion lines.
Maxwell’s gestus lives even through movement; when the men are fighting, Beatrice places a hand on both of their chests, simply conveying her intimacy with each of them as well as her efforts to keep them apart. Realistic physical exertion or realistic caressing would destroy this double-image and reduce it to one or the other. It’s very Brechtian…but then again Maxwell ultimately out-Brechts Brecht because in the end there is no clear pitiable Mother Courage or detestable Ui, no side you “should” take, just three archetypes lost in space and each other.
Yes, by the end they’re out of the bar and in outer space. So this huge changeover provides an interesting catharsis–but rather than a narrative catharsis we get an aesthetic catharsis. Clean bright light, camouflage suits, no architecture, three figures evenly spaced against a white wall. The representational practice of the first 5/6ths of the piece is about visually defining the characters’ positions in space (a bar) relative to where they are onstage, and the duration of the performance is equivalent to the amount of time that elapses in the story. When the changeover occurs, however, the rules change as well: we are wherever and whenever Cammisa says we are. They are doing whatever Cammisa says they’re doing: climbing a mountain, diving into the ocean, etc. It becomes an oral comic book. The frames change as she speaks, and we imagine these impossible stage directions, over great amounts of time. Really, it’s Maxwell giving these stage directions (they use actor names instead of characters now.) If this were a comic book the narration would simply appear in bubble text hovering above the image, rather than spoken by any of the characters.
The representational practices following the changeover, while it definitely breaks from the preceding performance, does so with tactics that strike us as precious, tasks we’ve seen a lot of: speaking stage directions, using actors’ names instead of character names, use of a live band. It dips into the twee instead of taking us to outer space. This is in contrast to an earlier moment in the bar, in which both men reveal the blood packs used to simulate their gunshot wounds. They didn’t need to reveal artifice throughout, because this significant yet understated moment accounted for all of it. Once they got to the white environment, there should have been even less need to tell us how to feel.
The style of performance deployed in The Evening is not just stylized in order to be different or avant garde; the techniques offer negative space for the viewer to interpret and project. Maxwell offers a formal alternative for live performance that is opposed to the hyper-real standard set by television and movies, rather than trying to replicate it. In the same way that impressionism reacted to the rise of photography by seeing what painting could do that photography could not, The Evening shows what theater can do that film cannot. It is formally generous, in that it allows the viewer’s experience to diverge from what is actually happening onstage. Because our contract as the audience is to submit to theater time as it unfolds (we aren’t going to close the browser window), we can project our own emotional fictions and personal associations with the archetypes. This ultimately feels more “real” than the real sweat on the football players on the TV screen. Maxwell’s work trains us as viewers to connect the dots ourselves, although the alternative remains present for those viewers who don’t want to do that work. If you want everything to be justified and given to you, there it is on the screen in the corner, in full color HD.
Note: Fire Drill is on tour during the performance weekend, so this blog is in response to the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.