We each curate the museum of our memories. Proust had his madeleine, the equivalent of a more recent generation's Nutter Butter (powdery inside, prone to sogginess in summer humidity). Red Eye Theater tackles the memories-as-exhibits metaphor in The Museum Play, a cerebral and claustrophobic production that plunges deep into the murky depths of memory's meaning, reliability, and utility. It's a show that loses the thread at times, its spare narrative creaking alarmingly under the weight of a load of intellectualism. It's surprising, then, how a couple of strangely touching notes toward the close redeem a work that boldly straddles the line between total hokum and the very stimulating.
Red Eye is rolling the dice that audiences will take the ride with them. Jordan Harrison's script does little to meet theatergoers halfway, what with its digressions, jagged flow, and mental gymnastics. Ron Albert's music and sound also up the ante in the alienation sweepstakes, inserting strange distorted tones and disjointed but effective melodies into the mix. The overall tone of the work is disorienting, brainy, and tense, with its emotional range--despair, loss, love, lust, covetousness--reachable only through interpretation, almost never directly.
The play opens with John Bolding's Jame, a workaholic museum employee, in bed with his lover Vin (Severin Oman); the latter is distinctly unenthusiastic about Jame's obsession with artifacts and getting to "decide what people look at." Enter Lila (Jolie Meshbesher), whom Vin announces he is going to marry. Jame, until now seemingly betrothed to his work, is unexpectedly hurt and later heartbroken at losing Vin. (There's a funny scene in which Jame and Lila happily dissect Vin's sexual proclivities.)
So much at this point for linear narrative, which will pop back only intermittently the rest of the night--although what follows feeds off this setup. Back at the museum we meet the curator--played by Miriam Must, in neatly cropped white hair, vintage suit, and an aftertaste of bitter almonds to her schoolmarm manner. The curator is in a bind because of some vague business about exhibits disappearing and the need to find new items of interest to keep donors' checks coming. She hits on a solution when Jame shows up at work distraught, followed soon by a concerned Vin. As Jame, Bolding wrests a good deal of character from what he's given to work with; he's rumpled and hangdog with a square-jawed plausibility in his love for Vin and the museum. The curator measures up Vin and his "good bones," sealing him up and making him breathe a magic gas (formaldehyde, ostensibly) that strands him in a weird netherworld. The curator tells visitors that he is an animatronic puppet.
Must, by this point, is a great deal of fun to watch. She lectures the audience with cracked abstractions, then rejoins the fray in time to trap Jame with Vin. The onetime couple spends their days singing old lines of dialogue to each other in a purgatorial psychological space of slowed-down memory loops. In the meantime, Lila has commandeered Vin's childhood bedroom and converted it into the "International Museum of Vin." It's to be a fraudulent museum full of bullshit and lies, but Lila thinks she can pull it off.
The symbolism is thick and weird. Seems the museum is more or less a (gasp!) metaphor for the struggle between, roughly: a) the desire to enshrine the past and live in the world of memory; and b) enthusiasm for the dynamic and ever-changing present, with all its growth and immediacy. It's not a fight that I would have picked, but there it is. Complicating matters is an insurrection led by Lucy (Heidi Arneson), a bug-eyed docent who was raised in the museum and has never set foot outside. Lucy aims to right the cosmic imbalance the curator has wrought.
You're forgiven at this point for thinking that the play has seen the deep end and leapt over it braying like a donkey. I won't ruin the ending except to tell you that strings do not swell while lovers embrace in a brave new dawn. Oddly enough, Vin's fate suggests a third path between the immediate and the curatorial: life as a happy conspiracy of mutual lies. There were times when I feared the play was running on the fumes of a false dichotomy. (Memory or the moment? Why not have both? Remember, people once said you couldn't put chocolate and peanut butter together.) But turns by Arneson and Bolding at play's close lend unexpected poignancy. Arneson's Lucy goes into the breach of the real with shocking gusto, and Jame folds into his memory-world with a final insight into his relationship with Vin.
I didn't expect a play like this to end well, but such moments were oddly satisfying. The Museum Play lugs around a lot of heavy baggage, though in the end it's the picture of Jame lost in reminiscence--the stultified museum of his own mind--that endures. That bygone Nutter Butter evokes scores of summer days and images of things that can never be regained. But perhaps it's best to let those memories stay right where they are. When Jame meets his end singing, after all, it ain't a happy song.