To see Collapsable Giraffe’s Meat Is Floating By is to be pleasantly reminded that American drama, for all its traditional sincerity and eagerness to please, has long cultivated a counter-tradition of withdrawal. Ever since O’Neill shrouded his first actors in fog, the American stage has closed in around the lives it seems meant to showcase, recovering a zone of privacy over the objections of prying spectators. It’s a tradition that includes not only the obvious experimentalists who wall up their characters behind impenetrable action, but also those playwrights whose reputation for directness or taboo-smashing would seem to make discretion impossible. Tennessee Williams refuses to show the scandalous events or even the protagonist of Suddenly Last Summer. Arthur Miller shapes Death of a Salesman around what his subtitle calls “certain private conversations.” Edward Albee allows all his characters to retreat into the maze of their arch, evasive wordplay. These and other plays don’t just depict interior states; they turn sharply away from the light of inquiry.
Such a recessive kind of theater has rarely been as unsparing as in Meat Is Floating By, where the emotional unavailability is made concrete: Almost nothing can be seen whole. That’s partly because the set keeps getting in the way. A visible fourth wall, one side of a boxy room, dominates the space. It isn’t solid—two tall gaps and an opening along the bottom let us see inside—but for much of the performance the actors hang back out of sight, or expose only their shoes, part of a torso, or a stray limb. The hostility of the design is refreshing—after a generation worked to eradicate the fourth wall, what a relief to have it back, stronger than ever, with no chance of phony sentiment oozing over the footlights. Even after we’ve adjusted to this space, Collapsable Giraffe continues to taunt us. Video cameras above the room or held by the actors transmit live pictures to TVs, but they provide no greater access. The room, when filmed, actually seems farther away; the handheld cameras distort the bodies. Likewise the microphones positioned around the stage: They promise to disclose private thoughts but in fact catch only shards of monologues or obscure the speakers’ whereabouts.
The opacity comments on the play’s subject. The text, drawn in part from Artaud’s screenplay Eighteen Seconds, chronicles the moments before a man shoots himself—testimony Collapsable Giraffe juxtaposes with fictional suicide notes and other pleas for attention. Far from sounding sensational, these narratives actually lower the play’s temperature. None of the speakers seems to want our attention, much less sympathy, as the production moves unsentimentally past their psychic distress. Artaud describes his protagonist as “incapable of participating in the lives of others . . . reduced to watching a procession of images without very much connection from one to the next.” The abrupt turns of Meat Is Floating By mirror that dissociation, but they also control the temptation to romanticize its cause. The suicide’s supposed proximity to revelation, an “intense realization of his state,” as Artaud calls it, is shown to be illusory. So, too, the insight supposed to be available in these or any suicide notes. They explain nothing about what remains a private act. The characters, like the production as a whole, won’t give up their secrets.
What’s surprising—and what makes Meat Is Floating By so memorable—is how theatrical this aloofness turns out to be. The actors (Iver Findlay, Jim Findlay, Amy Huggans, and Joey Truman) are athletes of boredom, confusion, and a studied affectlessness. The wall only reinforces their already durable indifference to the turmoil around them. Yet by withholding typical emotions and abstaining from purposeful activity, the actors force to the surface aspects of personality that ordinarily resist convincing representation. We begin to see the ambivalence and self-suspicion that thicken in periods of idleness. Occasionally, this subterranean pressure erupts in violence, but just as suddenly the violence subsides, having changed nothing. The play oscillates between aggression and fear, never naming rationales for them. That’s not a failure of imagination. Meat Is Floating By stages only what it can verify: actions, not motivations; bodies, not characters; rooms, not the stories they hold. In doing so, it forces us to look at ourselves. At the end, the lights go dark and a door slams. We’re left alone, wondering if a play that never fully arrived onstage has now really ended.