Nearly 60 years ago, John Cage gave a talk entitled “Lecture on Nothing” in which he declared, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” That is theater, too—at least it’s No Dice, a new play created and performed by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. For nearly four hours, in seemingly unconnected scenes, various actors on a bare, makeshift stage say all manner of nothing—about temp jobs, diet soda, performing cats, office supplies. Often, they dance. Marvelously (and mercifully), it is indeed a kind of poetry.
In 2005, company founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper began to record phone conversations. According to Copper, they were interested in oral traditions and wanted to capture “the stories that people tell each other [in order] to live.” They amassed more than 100 hours of tape, though very little consisted of traditional narratives; instead, people bitched about work or longed for pudding or lamented Equity rules. Copper edited and assembled those conversations into No Dice. During the performance, the actors listen to this vocal collage on iPods, even as they speak it.
Other downtown artists have concerned themselves with the quotidian and the banal, but whereas a director like Richard Maxwell strips his plays of most emotions and gestures, Liska and Copper ornament No Dice with heaps of theatrical trappings: The actors adorn themselves in capes, wigs, and false mustaches; they speak in accents ranging from Scandinavian to Caribbean; and they embellish their lines with movements drawn from magic tricks, soap operas, and disco.
In one speech, a character describes her dream play: “I want it to be so long . . . I want the short version to be four hours . . . The regular version is 11.” Nature Theater of Oklahoma has elected, happily, to perform the short version—but four hours is still a considerable length. Yet thanks to the talents of the three main actors, it doesn’t pass slowly. Anne Gridley, Zachary Oberzan, and Robert M. Johanson give themselves over to each absurd accent and awkward dance move. Amid their ardor, disinterest is impossible.
Credit, too, should be given to Liska and Copper. Though No Dice often threatens mere silliness, its creators have crafted a generous reflection on art-making. Just as a tatty piece of green velvet hung in the shape of a proscenium arch transforms the space (a former children’s playground) into a theater, Liska and Copper show how an odd hat or a cocked eyebrow can change a phone chat into a play. They don’t condescend to the material; they delight in it. As one character effuses, “You’re taking the boring part of my life and making it into art.” And that isn’t boring at all.