I felt, at once, that I had chosen a very bad seat. Passage, a joint production of Intermedia Arts and Theater Mu, opens with four of the play's five performers huddling together, inches from where I was seated in the front row, and screaming directly at the audience. The performers are dressed in outrageous, grotesque costumes and makeup: One has her arm bent inside her costume, creating the illusion that she is an amputee. Another is stripped to the waist, his face and chest painted white, and he hobbles on one leg as though lame in the other. Another wears a costume so bloated and distorted that she appears to have been devoured by a caterpillar. I slumped down in my chair, avoiding eye contact, as these misfits screamed at me.
The screaming only lasted a minute, and then the stage went momentarily dark. When the lights returned, the performers had turned, and though we were now witnessing the same scene from a different angle. At once, they resumed their screaming, and then began a series of odd-movements: jumping, spinning in circles, prostrating themselves. Across from them, on a stage that looks very much like the roof of an anonymous industrial building, another actor emerged from beneath a sheet, also dressed as though pushed down the throat of a caterpillar. He stared at the group for a moment, and they fell silent. Then, delighted, he asked, "Again?"
"Again!" they cried out, fled offstage, and began again. These are the buffoons of director Andrew Kim and playwright Edward Bok Lee's self-described "absurdly dark, quasi-Asian ritual." They have gathered on the nondescript roof of some unnamed war-torn city to collectively act out a story they only half remember. They tell of a pregnant girl (Jeany Park) who returns home to her wheelchair-bound mother (Kaori Kenmotsu) and dying father (Masanari Kawahara) to discover that the city of her childhood is old and dying, and its people have lost their memories. Soon, she begins to be haunted by a masked beekeeper (Kiseung Rhee) who carries with him a glowing bottle of red honey, and whose cryptic demands of the girl might cause remembrance of what came before or might cause death.
Kim cites a dizzying variety of influences for this production, from Korean masked theater to the sort of elaborate physical performance taught by French theater theorist Jaques LeCoq, as well as Kim's own longstanding work with the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and Theater Mu. The results are remarkably assured, and not at all the messy hodgepodge you might expect. Kim's buffoons frequently abandon the story in favor of extended, often wordless, physical activities, but these scenes never seem disconnected from the main story.
In one, the Kawahara's dying father finds himself surrounded by the other performers, who crouch at his knees and whisper abuses at him. He extends his hand, and they pause as he gestures upward. Fascinated, the other performers gather around him, looking upward. Kawahara calls out repeatedly, pausing to listen for a response, and expressing his frustration when he receives none. Eventually, he takes to using a megaphone, climbing up a far wall and crying out for help as the others cling to him and wait expectantly for an answer. Receiving none, they return to their story, leaving me feeling as though I had just watched Waiting for Godot acted out as pantomime in just under two minutes, which is quite exhausting, really.
In fact, the whole of Passage has a similar fatiguing quality to it. Moments of the show are grueling, such as an extended description of a tiny, withered stillborn child. The buffoons strain to remember their story, which is about people straining to remember their lives, and there are few things as maddening as trying to force the return of a memory. The memories return at last at the end of the play, and they are terrible memories, but the relief of having them back is such that the buffoons weep with joy.
There's so much going on in this production that it creates a satisfying little irony: The audience will necessarily strain to remember details of this play. Perhaps it would help if they acted it out...
It is no surprise to discover that Ann Schulman's Eternity is likewise obsessed with memory, seeing as it is a production of the Great American History Theatre. After all, attending plays at this theater is very much like having your grandfather set you down on his knee and say, "Let me tell you about what things were like when I was young."
What is surprising is that the story for this play, which tells of a failed attempt to save a synagogue in Superior, Minnesota, seems to have been cribbed from the George Burns vehicle 18 Again!, in which he is reborn into the body of a very young man, but maintains all of his old borscht-belt mannerisms. In this instance, through a rather convoluted bit of Jewish mysticism, it is the ghost of an old woman (Wendy Lehr) who winds up in the body of a young man (Casey Greig), occasionally possessing him in order to send scornful messages to her great-granddaughter (Karla Reck), whom she sees as having abandoned Judaism.
Greig is a riot in these scenes, arguing with himself as he switches rapidly between his own, boyish voice and the thick Yiddish accent of a very old woman. At one point he writes on his hand a reminder that must rank as the single weirdest thing I have heard from the stage this year: "Don't let the women living inside you talk." Eternity is directed by John Clark Donahue, who has been doing everything a little large for the past year.
His past few productions (such as Pride's Crossing for the Hidden Theater) have featured gargantuan sets, and this production is no different. In this instance, it is the Hebrew cemetery in Superior, represented by enormous headstones. But beyond that the acting is oversize. The whole production is set right at the edge of hysteria, both in terms of its melancholy and its comedy, which calls to mind the famous scenery chewing and overwrought dramas of the Yiddish theater. We don't see much of that old schmaltz anymore, and it's worth remembering.