Sunday, March 05, 2006

The "New Storytelling" (part III of IV)

Rick Burkhardt's play The Climb Up Mount Chimborazo (2005)[1] has, I think, the most complex relation to telling of the pieces I've been briefly discussing here. The play is more or less about the relationship between South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar and his teacher, Don Simon Robinson. Robinson (formerly Rodriguez, and Carreno before that) was a fascinating character, employed by Bolivar's family when the latter was a child (and Robinson a teenager), and later appointed by Bolivar as Minister of Education for the free, unified Latin America Bolivar was trying to build. Robinson was widely reviled for his insistence that boys and girls should study in the same classrooms, that Indians should be educated, and that practical skills should be taught. He was also in favor of legalizing divorce, a position which may not seem so radical, but which led to the unseating of countless progressive political figures in South America well into the late twentieth century. Enthusiastic about Rousseau, Robinson was more radical, less bound up in bourgeois culture than Jean-Jacques, whose idealized nature bears so many traces of private property.

The setup:

The play is performed by three actors.
SB: the actor playing Simon Bolivar, also plays Manuela Saenz
DSR: the actor playing Simon Robinson, also plays Alexander von Humboldt
Mosquito: a series of antagonists
The actors vary the extent to which they "inhabit" the roles. For example DSR might choose to represent Simon Robinson by moving a sombrero in rhythm with DSR's voice. In certain segments, such as figure five, the actors give up playing the characters altogether.

In addition to this variability of characterization, the play places an emphasis on ways of speaking, including some that exemplify a new virtuosity in performance of text that Burkhardt has been developing in his chamber works of the last decade:

In the unison passages, none of the actors speaks the entire text; rather, actors choose parts of words and phrases to speak "brokenlyÂ" so that when one hears the composite sound of the two or three actors speaking the line, one hears the entire line moving between them. The effect should be of a text in shards, archaeologically "unearthed."

Sometimes this happens while one of the actors, between his syllabic fragments, is delivering a continous, independent text (in the play's opening scene, the two texts deal with two different periods in South American history, Bolivar's 19th century and our 20th and 21st).

Chimborazo is as much about the way its story (and history in general) is told as it is a telling of that story. Parallels are drawn between the aristocracy's slander of Robinson and Bolivar and the modern bourgeois denunciation of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (concerning his "mental illness" and "deep-rooted sexual fixation on Fidel Castro" (watch the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to hear these people actually say this stuff), as well as the U.S.' right-wing talk shows (performed here by a group of hand puppets). The play critiques historians' banalization of the relationship between Bolivar and Manuela Saenz--the transformation of a friendship, revolutionary collaboration and nonmonagmous sexual relationship into a love story that spices up the Bolivar story--and connects this to the unreflective employment of "sensuality" in most of today's leftist writing ("Marx with a 'lusty appetite for life'"), broadening its target to include the entire separation of sexuality and friendship, so bound up with heterosexism, that results in a moralistic and repressive standard governing the relationships between compatriots, young people, teachers and students, and more or less everybody, so-called liberals included. Historical and literary quotations abound: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gets repopulated with Latin American revolutionaries, stories of CIA-sponsored torture shove their way in to essays by Alexander Von Humboldt, and a collage of phrases from Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman, filtered through an odd Beowulf-like dialect, compresses the tale of the Bolivarian military campaigns into a manic five-minute lecture. Throughout the play, the resistance to colonial, corporate, heteronormative, racial, religious and literary oppression is trying to make its story heard through the noise of the media, of recorded history, and of the incessant reinforcement of the laws of love, sometimes gently and sometimes in a barrage of confused or hysterical speech. Accompanying all this is a beautiful prerecorded tape, largely composed of noises made on a turntable and then meticulously edited--a literalization of the idea of "record:" the historical archive, but also a technology that, like the Bolivarian dream, has not quite been given up. There's something crucially tender about the entire project that can't be found in many places in contemporary art, a mournful quality that's very much intermingled with a sense of what can be accomplished. This is memory in the best sense; it includes the present as something to be remembered as if from a better future. The revolution of Bolivar, Robinson and Saenz was an attempt to break open more varieties of liberation than we usually conceive of today, and Burkhardt's play preserves this project and expands on it in a way we desperately need, aesthetically and ethically.

(to be concluded--really--in the next handful of days)
[1] A PDF of the full script should be up shortly at the Nonsense Company's website.


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