In her diary, Virginia Woolf made many observations and complaints regarding her 1931 novel The Waves. She wrote that she desired a form “free; yet concentrated; prose yet poetry; a novel & a play.” She eventually termed the completed work “an abstract mystical eyeless book: a playpoem.” Director Katie Mitchell has taken Woolf at her word: Waves, Mitchell’s elegiac adaptation of the book, produced briefly by Lincoln Center at the Duke, is at once prose and poetry, poem and play, and a bit of radio theater and video installation besides.
The novel tracks the progress of six schoolmates from childhood to late middle age, narrated by them in disjointed bursts of sensory impressions and stream-of-consciousness discourse. Mitchell also explores, as Woolf does, the bittersweet agonies of assembling an identity out of the fragments of existence. The eight actors work to create each character, joining to preserve each observed moment. For example, in a scene in which the child, Susan, describes burying her face in a handkerchief, one actor reads Susan’s thoughts, while another physically enacts her anguish. A third actor captures her visage with a video camera, while a fourth lights the shot, and a fifth supplies sound effects. The other three busy themselves with preparing the next scene.
The performers work with economy and industry, in a blunt busyness that contrasts with the piece’s melancholic tone, its plangent nostalgia for irrecoverable experience. This tone seems a deliberate concern of Mitchell’s: While the novel ends on a note of defiance—”Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death”—Mitchell’s play concludes with the quietly rueful “Being now all of us middle-aged . . . let us put down our loads.”
Mitchell doesn’t bear her load lightly. In her production, difficult incidents and emotions drown out happier ones. But she’s worked this difficult novel—which Woolf herself acknowledged as “good but incoherent”—into a cohesive and poignant play. All the characters, all the flakes and shards of experience resolve, as one speaker suggests, into a “many-petalled, red, whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.”
There’s nothing flowery about The Jester of Tonga, another multimedia piece, presented at P.S.122. Like Waves, The Jester also searches out new ways to record and display narrative, yet it’s casual and joyous where Waves is meticulous and mournful. Performer-playwright Joe Silovsky explores his obsession with a News of the Weird tale, a story that broke in 2001 about an American businessman, Jesse Bogdonoff, who secured the title of Court Jester of Tonga and somehow lost over $20 million of Tonga’s money.
Silovsky meanders around the stage with a geeky nonchalance; at one point, he says, “I’m going to need a minute to set up for this next scene,” then turns on a jazz record while searching through various suitcases and assembling low-budget wonders—smeary overhead projections, pop-up dioramas, toy theaters. About 20 minutes into the proceedings, he summons his co-star, Stanley, who plays the role of Bogdonoff.
Stanley’s a winning, kittenish robot, fitted with a head that swivels, eyes that roll, a mouth that opens and closes, and legs, arms, and fingers that twitch and shudder. He brings a strangeness to the proceedings, but also a measure of gravity. His presence seems to quiet Silovsky, allowing him to proceed with his narration. Stanley also offers a much more sympathetic portrait of Bogdonoff than most human actors would. Rarely has a mechanical performance seemed such a delight.