What kind of theater do we need now? It’s a question one ought to always ask, really, but certainly one that is unavoidable in these dreadful times. I, for one, sought some justification for traipsing off to see plays over these last couple of weeks. How could I just sit there, I asked myself, when I could be out doing—well, it’s an even bigger conundrum to determine what productive things to do between grieving loss and protesting war. I stirred my faith in theater’s liveness and irony: As a form, theater creates public space and can ignite equal measures of empathy and dialectical thinking. I needed all of that.
Certainly a new version of Euripides’ The Bakkhai would offer a provocative demonstration of the ancient clash between religious frenzy and arrogant power. Dario Fo’s Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas—a comic monologue told by an Italian worker fleeing the Inquisition who takes up residence among the indigenous peoples of the New World—would provide a model for rejecting dominant narratives of history. A witty new play by macabre minimalist Daniel MacIvor would at the very least dis-tract and amuse. I was wrong on every count. MacIvor’s play is sublime in its simplicity, profound in its square confrontation of unexpected death. The other two just felt noisy.
René Migliaccio’s production of The Bakkhai—promoted as a application of the director’s revolutionary “expressionistic realism”—was an insufferable exercise in self-indulgence: a chorus of writhing, bare-breasted women and endless, unmodulated shouting from an otherwise wooden Nikolai Kinski playing both Pentheus and Agave. The less said about it the better.
Fo’s Johan Padan was a crushing disappointment in far deeper ways. Fo’s brilliant balance between blistering critique and hilarious mayhem was out of kilter. (Much like the Nobel-winning satirist’s description of the September 11 attack as “the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger, and inhumane exploitation.” He said this even as he canceled a planned tour to the U.S. with expressions of “enormous pain and condolences for the dreadful massacre.”)
My guess is that, when performed by Fo—a consummate clown who’s both charming and a little scary onstage—there’s some kind of useful disjunction between the hero’s riotous physical demonstrations of how to make love in a hammock or how to tame a horse by tying rope around its testicles, and his descriptions of forced migrations and marauding conquistadors. As performed here by Thomas Derrah (in a fluid translation by director Ron Jenkins), the tone is nonstop adorableness, the focus pointing always to Derrah’s abundant physical skills. The story comes off as a mere vehicle for Derrah’s capacity to twist and cavort, to cackle like a captured turkey and click out the crooked sounds of an invented native language. Thus there’s no room for irony in the denouement, in which the Indians come to regard Padan as a god, and he valiantly, and bumblingly, saves them from destruction.
Daniel MacIvor’s In on It depends, too, on unadorned actors to create an entire world. This one is both more contained and more complicated. Along with Darren O’Donnell, MacIvor plays characters from three narratives whose intersections become clear only in the cataclysmic ending. What unites them for most of the 75-minute play is a prop: a gray lamb’s-wool jacket. As the two men exchange the jacket, they cross the shifting boundaries of the disparate plots, becoming jilted husbands, disappointed wives, abandoned children, lefty sloganeers, and stuffy opera queens. But the jacket is not merely a device from an old theater game. It has significance in each of the stories, whether as an element in a seduction, an object of resentment, or an item tossed in rebuke. As it lies limp on the floor at the end of the play, it has become thoroughly metonymic, an image of lost love and empty longing, human frailty and the finality of death.
The first story concerns Ray, a middle-aged man who receives bad news from his doctor. A series of crisp scenes show Ray with his wife (who announces that she’s running off with his friend), his son (obsessed with complaints about his own wife), his father (senile in a home), and a few others. None of these interlocutors is able to take in Ray’s dire prognosis as all are caught up in their own preoccupations. In the second narrative that’s interspersed with Ray’s, two men fall in and out of love, joking as they prepare a silly dance to a Lesley Gore song for a friend’s commitment ceremony, and bickering as they build a daily life together. In this story line, the petty becomes momentous as events hurtle toward calamity.
The third level shows MacIvor and O’Donnell as creators of In on It, the latter often questioning the playwright’s choices and seeking comment on his own acting. Far more than a meta-theatrical game, this layering not only presents the relationship between the performers as one more reflection of the mysterious affection, competition, and bitterness that grow between people. It also makes palpable the play’s very theme: the human need to put a shape around unexpected tragedy and inconsolable loss. Somehow it’s comforting that MacIvor so feelingly shows us that effort. For we are all certainly in on it now.
J. Yeh’s review of Daniel McIvor’s See Bob Run
Julie Phillips’s review of MacIvor’s In on It (Amsterdam)
Francine Russo’s review of MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone