Thursday, June 28, 2007

Last weekend the Nonsense Company performed "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving" and "Conversation Storm" in "The New Enthusiasm," a mini-festival at the Baltimore Theatre Project that also featured Wham City and the Missoula Oblongata, who invited us to participate.
Wham City's performance was hilarious and odd--a series of sketches and short videos whose formal strangeness and general absurdity made it some of the only good "sketch comedy" I've ever seen (they're not like Monty Python or the Firesign Theatre, but there's a genuine inventiveness the like of which I've only found in those two groups, and in the best work of Chicago's Neo-Futurists).
We wouldn't have driven to the east coast to do only two performances, though, if we weren't screaming fans of the Missoula Oblongata (now residing in western Massachusetts). Playwright/actors Donna Sellinger and Madeline ffitch, with director Sarah Lowry and a rotating cast of solo musicians (in this case, composer/actor Robert O'Brien), create some of the best theater I've ever seen; their new piece, The Most Mysterious Day of the Year, left me uttering sublinguistic monosyllables for the rest of the night. Both this work and their previous play, The Wonders of the World: Recite, feature fantastic and varied writing, incredibly precise acting (with a strong basis in dance, clowning and mime, though only occasionally actually inhabiting these modes--usually their traces can be seen in the thoughtfulness of every physical move), and a general aesthetic whose level of courage and care is overwhelming. I've tried to describe their work before and failed...
Donna and Madeline have no fear of doing the impossible (or at least the wildly impractical). If one of them wants a working lighthouse onstage, they're encouraged to build it, and they do, and figure out how to pack it into a van with the countless other objects their performances require. Their sets look initially like heaps of junk, with little room in which to move (and the set pieces and props, from the lighthouse to a human-sized birdcage to "the world's most comfortable bed" to a boxing ring to a gigantic kaleidescope, are indeed made from castaway objects and materials)--but every piece is used in the performance, and every piece of "junk" is magically transformed into a shining, essential object, awoken from its slumber.
In their performative meticulousness, thoughtful choice of objects, and the content of their plays, the MO displays a tenderness toward things that are vanishing--or have vanished--or are barely held together, easily shattered or drowned out--a tenderness that inevitably makes me cry (a response I rarely have to art--and it's telling that the MO's pieces aren't at all intended to pull powerful emotional responses of this kind from the audience, the way Hollywood movies and the theater that imitates them is so intended--an abuse of the viewer that requires soundtrack, camera tricks, all kinds of manipulation for its achievement... Donna rolls her eyes when I tell her about this). In the new play, the end of the private detective and the disappearance of Morse code are among the subjects. It's not that these are inherently moving topics; nor are they mythologized in a way that gives them any tragic standing. They're simply treated with the same care with which the MO treats old radios, typewriters, the world in its death throes, the art of storytelling, precise attention to detail, the fragile project of taking such work around the country, always starting, in a way, from square one, with these impossible transformations of what's too often neglected into a display of human potential that would make me feel lazy, cynical and mediocre by comparison if it didn't deny me the right to these feelings by its insistent examples of possibility.
They're on tour. You probably have the chance to see 'em.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Happy Bloomsday.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I'm reading Roberto Harrison's Os--slowly, because it's dense work that calls for lingering. So far I'm very impressed by:

1) The economy of the writing, which reminds me in an odd way of Zukofsky (though the tone, vocabulary and apparent goals are utterly different). Vivid words in compressed clusters that, through the overlap of connotations between them, convey something that would otherwise require extensive theoretical elaboration and a loss of concreteness. The relative distance of a word from the one next to it seems to be one parameter at work here.

(The charge of the language--the fact that something always seems at stake--makes this economy more powerful).

2) A really intelligent use of the line break; it's often hard to decide if a line is a discrete unit or not--whether the sentence (they're not really sentences, though they often act like them) is meant to continue uninterruptedly into the next line. When the latter seems to be the case, there's usually something about the next line that makes this conclusion uncertain. There's a wide variety of possibilities in here, and Harrison, in the first twenty pages of the book, explores a lot of them (I like the variety of his approaches--though the poems clearly "go together," they don't settle into a style).

3) I've been struggling, in my own writing, against a tendency to always conclude poems with gestures that sound like endings. Harrison is highly skilled at endings that neither seem to wrap things up nor seem simply to break off in mid-statement (this probably has something to do with the general syntax of the writing--not quite sentences, but not fragments either). That's worth further study.