The Devil Went Down to Austria
Mark Twain, the sanguine satirist who lampooned the mixed-up politics of his 19th-century America, had a tormented side, one that emerged in rage, frustration, and fervent questioning of faith near the end of his life in the early 1900s. He channeled the pain caused by the loss of two children, his failing health, dwindling money, and lack of patience for moral hypocrisy into a fierce novella, The Mysterious Stranger. Within the deceptively simple story of a quiet, socially repressed 16th-century Austrian village visited by an angel named Satan, Twain challenged God to take responsibility for his own creations. It was a controversial work, not only for its condemnation of the being "who created man without invitation," but also for its contemplation of the idea of existence itself. "Nothing exists but you," says the angel, near the end of the novella. "And you are but a thought."
Enter Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, 21st-century New Yorkers, husband and wife, and co-artistic directors of Big Dance Theater. This ten-year-old troupe is known for taking on the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Tristan Tzara, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, transforming literature, images, and ideas into stage works that blur the lines between experimental theater and postmodern dance. (In this, they recall such troupes as the Wooster Group or directors Anne Bogart and Richard Foreman.) Choreographer Susan Marshall suggested to the duo that they enter the darkness of The Mysterious Stranger, and the result is the Obie- and Bessie-winning Another Telepathic Thing, appearing this weekend at the Southern Theater as part of Walker Art Center's 14th annual Out There festival.
Restless inventors that they are, Parson and Lazar were not content to dwell solely upon Twain's sullen musings. And so they decided to inject a little humor into the pathos. Lazar had been experiencing a number of fruitless auditions for film and television prior to the production of Another Telepathic Thing, and a friend suggested he secretly tape the audition process. "It made it a lot more fun," says Lazar, explaining by telephone how he and Parson came to combine the agony and ecstasy of a contemporary actor's life with Twain's pique at a fickle higher power. "It became less of a drag because a second agenda was being fulfilled."
Soon Lazar had compiled a lot of tapes, if not a lot of parts, and he also had the makings of a new work. "It came as a complete surprise to us," he continues, excitedly recalling moments when the elements started coming together. "The person in the audition is a person in need, looking to an enigmatic other who is crazy and arbitrary--and who has the thing you need."
The process of bringing together different ideas yielded a piece that careens, at first, from puritanical Austria to the brutal audition hall. But eventually, and subtly, it finds the common ground between the two through detailed characterizations and movement, as well as songs and matter-of-fact narration by Cynthia Hopkins (from the band Gloria Deluxe). "Twain's contradictions are really beautiful in the way he sees the world, the complexities of life, and the frustration with...the life/death relationship," says Parson, who choreographed the piece.
Both Parson and Lazar were particularly enamored with the angel's final words in the story, ones that beautifully, and forcefully, set forth the premise that life is only a dream. "I wanted to make a whole play to get to that speech," says Parson. Lazar adds, "I believe it's a very open question as to Twain's intent. From the Eastern perspective, the speech is transcendent, optimistic. Nothingness doesn't have a nihilist meaning to a Buddhist, unlike with certain Christians. I honestly don't think Twain had a lot of Buddhist intentions. But you look at the speech as it is in this moment."
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