Saturday, November 17, 2012

REVIEW: Obskene

HERE Arts Center
Talking Band
November 1-17th

The intellectual crux of Obskene is in the title: Ob-skene, the Greek term for off-stage, is where the worst parts of Greek Drama happened - the blood, the guts, the sex, and everything else. Because cooking children and feeding them to their parents is not the sort of thing you would put on-stage (for practical and puritanical reasons), those events -- which were often the most crucial parts of the story -- would happen off-stage. Somehow, that word also became "obscene", describing the sort of content that happens off-stage.

Obskene is not an obscene performance. You might forget that, though, as your stomach turns and you cringe away from what you're hearing. It's also theatrical-and-not-theatrical, an interesting balance as it probes the relationship between the seen and the unseen.

Obskene is really two performances, linked through their relation to the whole, but otherwise self-sufficient moments. It's not like two one-act plays; both of them are meditations on the theme, mostly in the form of monologues.

(photo: Discovering Oz)
The first part is a series of adapted monologues from the great Greek tragedies: Medea, Bacchae, Suppliant Women, Hyppolytus, Clytemnestra, and the Roman Thyestes. The selection from each work follows the same format: a Messenger (Paul Zimet), runs into the a sparsly laid out scene (one table, one chair, and a background of stars), and declaims a horrible event which he has witnessed off-stage -- Clytemnestra butchering her husband and having sex amongst the blood, Hippolytus dragged into a bloody mess by his wild horses, the Bacchants tearing apart Pentheus' body piece by piece, etc.

The form of the original tragedies is that these monologues by the Messengers would come at the climax of the play, surrounded by a drama of characters and politics. Here, the monologues come as climax after climax, becoming a sustained anti-climax; a rush of words that strain to shock and disgust but can sometimes blur into an undifferentiated stream of violence.

Between the moments of monologue, however, the other Messenger (Ellen Maddow) is preparing some sort of stew, mostly by sawing through raw meat with a knife. And it's here that the actual obscenity strikes; when Ellen Maddow's Messenger tells the story of Atreus slaughtering and cooking his twin brother's children, and feeding it to them, she reaches a point where Atreus delights in his crime and only wishes that his brother knew what it was that he was eating. Then, here eyes alight down, and we see the meat -- which has been horrifically torn at until this point, and you can't help but have your stomach turn.

(photo: Discovering Oz)

The second part, also a series of monologues, takes the format of a bustling news room, with people on the phone and on radios trying to get detail about a dizzying myriad of stories, which are presented through monologues to the audience. Most of these monologues take the format of news stories, written by Marcus Gardley, John Jesurun, Ellen Maddow, Deb Margolin, Lizzie Olesker, and Paul Zimet.

Most of these news stories are on the level of serious Onion News Stories, falling flat the way many hypothetical future news broadcasts seem to -- making a joke out of today's controversial issues by proposing a future that doesn't make sense from today's current state. For example, John Jesurun's monologues "Mexican States" brings broadcasts from four Mexican states on the US border that have given up in the face of drug violence and chaos, and have demanded annexation by the United States.

The real achilles heel of these stories is their abstract notion, and it's here that a few of the monologues break out. Particularly, the monologue written by Paul Zimet, "It's Hot Out There", paints a horrifying and devastating picture of New York after rising world temperatures have made the US almost impossible to inhabit. On the abstract level, it's just as full of implausibilities -- birds that fall out of the sky fully cooked -- but the focus is on tangible imagery, vibrantly rendered by the Reporter (Chinaza Uche).

The difference between those stories is best illustrated by Ellen Maddow's monologues "Special Zone", which begins as a matter of fact story about a "Special Zone", separate but equal, being established in a Supreme Court ruling authored by Justice Antonin Scalia (haw haw is there nothing he won't do) where those who wish to marry animals are consigned. As the monologues progress, however, it transforms from a reporter's dry and abstract story, to an up-close view of a woman whose love for her boa constrictor will never be returned, and will eventually lead to her being swallowed up. The Reporter (Anastasia Olowin) follows that arc, and becomes just as wrapped up in it all -- and the results are heartbreaking.

Lastly, another fine example is David Greenspan's haunting "AVery Exciting Study", which aptly closes the evening, telling the story of a scientific advance from the perspective of the lab animals whose spines were cut to facilitiate the testing. (Perhaps for me it was made more poignant by recent events). Again, the focus is not on the abstraction of the events, but on their tangible outcomes, rendered simply and rivetingly by John Kurzynowski.

In the end, the performance is not about any of the horrifying stories we hear, or the stories which fall short of being horrifying. It's a reflection on the act of telling the story.

It's a very important problem to crack right now, because as our world population gets larger and larger, and our fates get increasingly interconnected, the suffering out there. In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, and the big gaps in people's experience of the same event, it seems more crucial than ever that we figure out how to actually transmit tragedy. 

And we do it through tangible descriptions. That's what the loss of international reporting creates -- a lack of on-the-ground, tangible reporting. Take, for example, Edward R. Murrow's visceral reporting from Buchenwald at the end of World War Two:

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts....
(I chose one of the least visceral passages, and yet you can still feel it.) This is the visceral power that the Greco-Roman tragedy has:
When with the victims he has satisfied himself, he is now free to prepare his brother’s banquet. With his own hands he cuts the body into parts, severs the broad shoulders at the trunk, an the retarding arms, heartlessly strips off the flesh and severs the bones; the heads only he saves, and the hands that had been given to him in pledge of faith. 
And is absent from most modern reporting:
CAIRO — The Egyptian transportation minister resigned Saturday after 49 children were killed on their way to school in southern Egypt in a collision between their bus and a train.
The state-run news agency said a total of 51 people died in all in the accident near Mandara village in Assiut province. Another 16 were injured. 

There is an undeniable down-side to the visceral, tangible reportage: the allure of sensationalism, blowing thing out of proportion. But if a train tragedy is reduced to a math problem, it can dull our ability to feel and connect to them.

So what, then, is obscene? It's a tired trope to point out that it's not words. It's not the seven words you can't say on television and it's not saying the word vagina in a state house.

But if Obskene proves anything, it's that words can be obscene: they can carry the tangible, present weight of obscene acts; they can conjure them and make them real and bring a power of violence into being that is, in fact, difficult to stomach. It does not mean that we cannot say them, but they can bring that violence into a space. (See also: CK, Louis).

The form of the production, as directed and arranged by Tina Shepard, is adept at highlighting this -- through the moments of failure as well as the moments of success. For there are definitely times where performers fail to get across a tangible, reified understanding of tragedy or pain. And then there are moments where you can hear the snap of a rat's spinal cord, and where you can sit with the pain as it tries and fails to understand why.