The opening moments of Mac Wellman’s Infrared resemble an oddball slumber party. Beneath a single spotlight, three girls in matching white pajamas trimmed with red approach a table. One sits facing the audience and opens her mouth to speak. The other two hold flashlights under her chin, creating low-tech’s signature sinister lighting effect.
But instead of spinning out a hysterical ghost story or a tale of a man with a hook for his hand, the girl unfurls her existential dilemmas. “I suppose you would like to know who I am,” she purrs, “and if not ‘who’ then ‘what.’ There is a problem with this. I don’t know what I am and I am not sure there is a ‘who’ to be found there. Or here, I mean. This worries me.”
As it turns out, the girl is not a girl at all, but “a prodigious monster, a true swamp gahoon” with horned feet and strange protuberances. The monster has lost its shadow and journeys into New York—via the Holland Tunnel—in the wee hours of the night to recover it. The monster soon encounters Wow, “an ordinary dog with ordinary proclivities,” and her owner Cathy X, who is “clean, polite, and tidy, not to mention politically naive.” But Cathy X has a pronounced peculiarity—the trash-talking puppet she wears on her hand casts the monster’s missing shadow.
Infrared dresses the familiar tale of a search for self in the trappings of the fantastic. And it develops, along the way, into a gentle mockery of numerous dramatic genres and styles. With playful delicacy, the director (James Godwin) and script conspire to skewer story theater, puppet theater, toy theater, even the passion play. These devices effectively dramatize the monster’s struggle toward an identity, asking not only “What’s my story?” but also “How should it be told?” Doing the telling are three strong performers (Susan Heimbinder, Leigh Secrest, and Jennifer A. Cooper) who never lose the sunny feel of schoolgirls putting on a show using action figures for actors and bedclothes for curtains. In fact, a Barbie doll, a teddy bear, and a baby doll each put in an appearance.
But what makes Infrared more than good fun is the extraordinary, flamboyant, and often botched language that has become such a hallmark of Wellman’s theater. Playwright Eric Overmyer once described Wellman’s writing as a “horizontal avalanche,” and that’s a swell moniker for Wellman’s cornucopic style. He’s a master of the absurd incantation and possesses a profound lexical love for the inelegant, the unwieldy, the abstruse—filamentous, panopticon, semblable, and cladding all make appearances in Infrared.
This language, brought to exquisite life by the energetic actors, creates a vibrant, singular world, in which the fantastic (a talking dog, a soliloquy by the shadow of the Flatiron Building) is treated as most ordinary, and the ordinary (sublets, temp jobs) becomes infinitely weird. “A play,” Wellman has written, “consists of a single moment of radiant life traveling through the junk of dead space and empty time. Lose that moment and the play in all senses is lost.” Just as the monster eventually captures its shadow, so Wellman, in Infrared, has captured this moment.
** Such a moment, however, eludes the Dean Street Field of Operation (FOO), though they try hard to grasp it. Their new show, Who Chops Foo II2, is a greatest-hits collection, culling outstanding scenes from their previous works. But as FOO doesn’t boast an extensive back catalog, the structure seems a peculiar choice. And though the show possesses a deliberate coherence of format and design, it fails to coalesce thematically or dramatically.
The performance takes off in fine style, as a grainy soundtrack of a chugging train is replaced by cacophonous shouting that fades into a samba tune. Four men—in whiteface, white clothes, and white-sprayed hair—take the stage, dancing to the beat. But all too soon the lights go to black, the figures scamper off, and a new scene begins. One of the four clunky projectors begins to spool out film of an Esther Williams-ish woman seemingly swimming along the parameters of the stage.
It’s an image both lovely and bizarre, qualities endemic to most of Foo II2. One minute a woman lies strapped to an operating table while My Fair Lady plays; the next she’s a starlet in a bubble bath. A monster and a chicken fight behind a scrim while a geisha dances by; a quick round of Russian roulette leaves two men dead. But while these stage pictures delight, the narrative disjunctions and the amnesia with which each new scene treats the previous one prove frustrating. Furthermore, all dialogue is lip-synched rather than spoken. Although this is an ingenious device at first, the incessant employment of the effect eventually serves only to distance the actors from their characters, adding to the incoherence.
Foo II2 relies too heavily on the beauty of its stage pictures and the keenness of its gadgetry. Though the actors all display fearsome energy and some really superior movement work, their presence seems the least essential component of the piece. This young company clearly has a strong aesthetic sense, but they would do well to devote some attention to character and narrative. As for now, Foo II2 only suggests the shadow of what they may eventually achieve.