Microtheatre in English has recently produced three one-act plays which I did not hesitate to look up and see on that small, intimate stage in the rebellious quarter of la Bastille. The common theme of the evening’s various offerings could very well be gleaned from the title of Soderbergh’s film, Sex Lies and Video Tapes; all three short plays are pieces which pay homage to mistaken identity (remember Shakespeare?) and to our own daily confusion or absurdity.
The first one, entitled Dmitri, was written by a New Zealander, Lance Tait, and directed by Taylor Patricia Scott. The play is quite Beckettian in its story of a waiter, Dmitri, who is visited after midnight by a thuggish, unknown man dressed in black. The man in black enters Dmitri’s apartment in his absence and after having exclaimed “There’s no TV here — what a weirdo!” starts browsing the owner’s small library. Despite the fact that he couldn’t spot his favorite author, Dostoevsky, the intruder sits down, settles for a book from a shelf and prepares to read. His “real life is about to begin,” or at least he exclaims so, but a minute later Dmitri shows up and a torturous inquisition begins. Having reproached Dmitri for his failure to stock real Russian giants of literature such as Dostoevsky, he points a gun at Dmitri and starts his tirade about Dostoevsky’s life. From this moment on, the political aspects of the play start to gain traction. Dmitri, the waiter, struggles to stay alive while skillfully postponing the moment of his execution. He becomes a kind of Scheherazade character trapped in his own apartment who desperately tries to engage his executioner in the stories which he unveils out of his own daily experience.
He indicates to the torturer that they might be in a deluxe Italian restaurant and then serves him a soup which the man in black finds distasteful. The waiter even fights for the life of a fly that the man finds in the soup and, having found out that the man was a food critic for the New York Times, the distracted waiter offers him a free dessert. However, the torturer does not abandon his assassination plan easily; he finally shoots at Dmitri only to find out that his gun was not loaded. In this absurdist moment of final redemption, the waiter is found bathing in his own sweat, devastated by the horrible experience of the Angel of Death breathing down his neck. He can only muster up enough courage to tell the executioner “YOU can leave now.” To which the man in this zany dialogue slyly retorts, “Yes, I can — I am free!” Dmitri , the first to leave, escapes the apartment quickly, adding cheerfully “See you later!” The last word belongs to the assassin who admonishes to himself, “A liar!” As the play circles around its ending, the author, Lance Tate, clearly questions the existentialist idea of who is indeed free and who cannot be found lying to himself?
The word liar may be a bonding thread connecting the three plays, as demonstrated in the second play Foreign Bodies, written by Charles Borkhuis, a New York poet/playwright with strong Surrealist affinities. The play, deftly directed by Meagan Adele Lopez, opens with a monologue by jazz pianist Jonathan Lead, whose hands were burned trying to save a woman in a fire. No longer able to play piano, he begins to drift and takes a trip to Paris where he meets an American woman in a club. These two “foreign bodies,” skillfully played by Jérôme Wukovits, and Lucy Anderson, are “talented but tragic” displaced souls. In fact, if we follow Julia Kristeva’s line of thinking in Strangers to Ourselves, the place where these strangers-to-themselves meet could be any lieu indeed. They appear as unmoored, free-floating characters from a Simon de Beauvoir story or a Fitzgerald novel. A month later they are married, but the woman is deeply unhappy, in part because they cannot have a child, which makes Jonathan extremely uneasy. When they go to a jazz club in Philly where Jonathan used to perform, the life of the couple is dangerously disturbed by the arrival of a jazz trumpeter, Chas Butler, with whom (and we will never know this for sure) Catherine starts an affair.
The subtle question here is if Catherine and Chas’s affair is just the fruit of Jonathan’s wild imagination or is it actually happening? Haunted by dreams of them having sex in a car, he wakes up to his wife’s loud complaint that their house is infested with rats and he’s got to do something. Jonathan starts following the lovers in his car where he hallucinates overhearing them on his radio talking about poisoning him with chocolate brownies and pudding. He tries to catch the “rats” in their plans to kill him, and interrogates Catherine openly as to whether she had sex with Chas.
The play, which starts as a family drama somewhat resembling a Chabrol film, has already turned into a dark, very ‘dark chocolate’ thriller noir. Perhaps to free herself from Jonathan’s maddening questions, Catherine admits that she made love to Chas, only once, but that’s enough to set Jonathan into a feverish rage as he feels the poisoned chocolate entering his veins, and the play turns with that high pitch note common to Greek tragedy which starts as a comedy, perhaps farce, and then … The Absurdist play becomes even more surreal when the actor playing Chaz Butler (Morgan Lamorté) cleverly doubles as a cheese-nibbling rat who starts to advise Jonathan on what to do with his wife. The chilling ending has hints of Hitchcock’s Psycho as one character appears to take over the mind of another.
In the third piece, Nanas are Forever by Keith Crawford, and directed by Emily Guernsey, the appearance of a killer with a hood over his head and a loaded gun comes to haunt us again. Soon after an elderly woman descends the stairs with a gun, she gets a phone call, which is followed by the arrival of the caller, a young Dina. The man in the hood is “an American faking an Eastern European accent” and proves to be a threat to both of them. The three characters argue over their situation, juxtaposing it to current political events — the “Tory attitudes” versus terrorist threats. The rest of the dialogue may be a bit hard to keep up with, confusing as it is to those who haven’t closely followed the details of Great Britain’s contemporary political struggles to the “British” letter.
One thing that a spectator does understand in this furiously argued thriller is that all the characters are doomed to disappear quickly from the Earth because they do not understand that they should have stayed closer to their families. The old lady exclaims “Don’t you know that one does not chose one’s family!” She ends up fed up with too much activism, abuse and wallowing in the complexities of the Brexit situation. Perhaps she speaks for the audience members who are also confused as to the real-life quandary the British have gotten themselves into. Whatever degree of reality spectators chose to take from all this, they may end up humorously befuddled by the absurd conditions the play tries to unravel, which is a comment on the actual contemporary situation.
I must congratulate the 27 microtheatre presenters, players, and writers for offering us three very lively and unusual plays that share a certain Theatre of the Absurd menace and punch, all too hard to find these days.
In order to clarify some of these issues as well as a possible thread or a link binding these three pieces, I dared ask a couple of questions one of the authors, Charles Borkhuis who has the longest standing as the literary cum theater worker here.
How did you get drawn towards a more “surrealist-influenced” poetry world?
Charles Borkhuis: Probably by hanging out in graduate school with my literature professor Nanos Valaoritis, who is a Greek Surrealist poet and was a part of Breton’s group in Paris in the ’50s. After getting excited by Existentialism and Theater of the Absurd, Surrealism was an easy shift for me. I think its appeal to the unsconscious is a inexhaustible source of inspiration. I still carry influences from existential writers and thinkers around in my back pocket as well as those from film noir, pop art, and Language Poetry. They’ve mixed together and come out in unpredictable ways that often surprise me.
What about influences of great poets such as Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Dickinson (your play Foreign Bodies has something eerie in it)?
Borkhuis: Yes, Poe is a lasting influence, more his stories than his poetry. Dickinson as well for her curious interior spells of lucidity and quirkiness. Kafka has also been a huge influence, especially in the sense that he refuses to allow one particular reading dominate his work. His dream-like fiction always seems so much a part of the quotidian world of ordinary experience. When I was writing Foreign Bodies, which was originally a radio play for National Public Radio, I was also reading a lot of George Bataille who always pushed things to almost hallucinatory extremes. In Foreign Bodies, I wanted to follow a character through a series of events which would eventually force him to take on another character’s persona in order to cover up a murder that he had committed. That was one of the driving impulses in the play. When I recently adapted the radio play into a stage play a lot of interesting things appeared which weren’t in the original, such as the visualization of a Ratman nibbling cheese who talked to the protagonist as a kind of alter ego.
When did you, how did you start writing and not get into visual arts so much?
Borkhuis: Well, I was always drawing and making comic books as a kid but also writing stories. Writing became more dominant when I went to collage, but my writing has always had a very visual sensibility, especially my poetry. It came naturally for me to use dream imagery in my writing, but the diffulty is always how to make it new and how to make it work. As far as poetic influences go, Rimbaud, Celan, Lorca, Oppen, Ashbery, and Coolidge immediately come to mind.
Why plays, theater? Is it a combo of writing and the visuals?
Borkhuis: Yes, to a certain extent in the theater one is making a talking painting. I guess I was originally excited about the prospects of getting my writing out of my room. I really liked the idea of working with actors and directors in a collaborative process. I found it easy to write dialogue, but it also gave me a chance to step outside myself and write from another person’s perspective. If you’re going to write plays you have to be interested in other people. Writing is usually a very private process but with theater you get to make it something of a social event. Beckett, Pinter, Pirandello, Chekhov, Albee, and Foreman have been big influences on my plays. Writing poetry offers another type of pleasure; it’s just you and the page and nothing between.
Charles Borkhuis is a poet, playwright, screenwriter and an essayist ; he has 9 collections of poems and was selected by Fanny Howe as a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Book Award. His poems have appeared in 7 anthologies including: Dia Anthology: Readings in Contemporary Poetry 2010-2016 [Dia Art Foundation], An Avec Sampler #2 [Avec], Primary Trouble [Talisman House], and Writing From The New Coast: Presentation and Technique [o.blek]. His essays on contemporary poetics have appeared in two books published by the University of Alabama Press: Telling it Slant and We Who Love to Be Astonished. He curated poetry readings for the Segue Foundation in NYC for 15 years and translated New Exercises from the French by Franck André Jamme [Wave]. His plays have been presented in NYC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hartford, and Paris and have been published in Mouth of Shadows [Spuyten Duyvil], The Sound of Fear Clapping [Obscure Press], Present Tense [Stage This 3], and Poets’ Theater [Ailanthus]. His two radio plays The Sound of Fear Clapping and Foreign Bodies were produced on NPR and can be heard at pennsound. He is the recipient of a Dramalogue Award and the former editor of Theater:Ex, an experimental theater publication. He lives in New York City and has taught at Hofstra University and Touro College.