On Tuesday, September 11, just about an hour after the World Trade Center had shuddered and then collapsed in Manhattan, professor Michal Kobailka addressed his introductory theater class at the University of Minnesota. "I have had to revise my lecture," he explained in his clipped Polish accent. "So much of what I was going to say now seems utterly irrelevant."
In the previous week he had introduced his class to the expression "catachrestic space," which he defined as a realm in which an object is wrenched from its pre-assigned definitions, suddenly taking on new meaning--or no meaning at all. The events on the world stage this past week seem to have temporarily rendered the whole of America a catachrestic space, and it is amazing how much of our common culture spontaneously decided that, in light of the destruction of the World Trade Center, it lacked significance. Television stations, such as Home and Garden Television and the Food Network, spontaneously chose to remove themselves from the air, replacing their ordinary programming with a placard informing us that in light of recent events they would suspend broadcast.
This was all temporary, to be sure. Within days, HGTV was back, telling us again how to replace the mildewed walls in our bathrooms with hand-painted tiles from the American southwest. We can stand catachresis only so long, I suppose. To listen to Professor Kobailka, however, theater has the possibility of being an ongoing catachrestic space, where objects are forever shedding their assumed meaning. His class at the university (which I'm taking in order to collect a long-delayed degree), often seems to be a form of this theater, with Kobailka snapping at his students from the college's three-quarter thrust stage, asking them questions about how the clothes they choose to wear represent them. "The fact that you are in the audience will not protect you," he will tell his class. "I can see everything you are doing."
And so, this past Friday, I went from one catachrestic event, in the form of the World Trade Center destruction, to another, in the form of local playwright Buffy Sedlachek's Tamarack at the Jungle Theater. Outside the theater, a half dozen candles flickered on a paint-spattered stepladder; inside the theater, director Bain Boehlke introduced the production by asking for a moment of silence. And then Sedlachek's play opened with an act of violence--the brutal murder of very nearly an entire family in rural Wisconsin, represented by the sound of gunshots and some graphic, slide-projected images of bullet-mangled corpses. But the murders are Sedlachek's MacGuffin, to use Alfred Hitchcock's phrase. She is less interested in the bodies--one seated by the television with its face torn off, one collapsed near a door, one carried into the bedroom and laid gingerly on the bed--than in the fact that this dead family meant one thing when they were alive--they were loners and outcasts in town--and now mean something entirely new when they are dead. So here, again, is violence as catachresis, whether we want to see any more of it or not. And professor Kobailka is correct: The fact that we are in the audience will not protect us.
Sedlachek's play is terrific, despite a Eugene O'Neill-like tendency toward heavy-handed symbolism. As played by veteran Twin Cities actor Stephen Yoakam, Howard is a lumbering ox of a man, stammering and blustering indelicate statements. In response to a query as to how he is feeling, Howard responds, "No complaints--except that my whole family has been wiped out." Howard is obsessed with finding his missing mother, who may or may not have been killed along with the rest of the family. But then Howard is just obsessed in general, particularly with It's a Wonderful Life, which he watches continuously. Unfortunately, Howard also becomes obsessed with defenestration, the act of ejecting someone out a window. When he begins to eye the windows of the tallest buildings in his town, it can't be good. Howard is also in the habit of talking about Greek history, which is always a sure sign that a play is starting to get a little thick with meaning, particularly when it comes out that Howard's absent mother is named Helen.
These overwrought moments are noticeable in that this is a play of great economy. Aside from Howard, there are only two other characters: the town sheriff, played dry and bristly by Terry Hempleman, and his meddling wife, played by Barbara Kingsley. Howard and the sheriff's wife share a secret history of sexual humiliation, which causes her to be protective of him. And so she brings him food and eventually allows him into an empty room in her house--over the objections of her husband, and despite the fact that Howard is the prime suspect in the murders.
This lean tale plays out on a set, designed by Boehlke, that is atypically spare for a Jungle production: a mass of metallic planks and a few tables and chairs. But Boehlke does much with light, staging scenes by flashlight, or having characters emerge, chillingly, from shadows. At times, the use of light takes on such importance that it seems to be an additional character in the play--particularly when it is absent and the stage slips into darkness, which is often.
This is a bad time for thrillers. With the events of the past week, it is hard to muster up much passion for an invented series of onstage murders. I watched the play and felt no concern whatsoever for the fate of the absent mother. But Tamarack is not just a thriller. The murders dredge up the shameful, hidden pasts of Sedlachek's characters, and the play examines them with an intensity that is near clinical. This parallels the grim professionalism of the police work as the sheriff sends the corpses of the opening scene for autopsies and combs the crime-scene evidence coming back from forensic labs. The play digs deep into its essential questions, namely, How could this have happened? and What happens now? At this moment in history, those questions feel awfully important.