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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here I Lie

I made my way out to the East Village Sunday night to catch a play called Here I Lie, performed at a space called the Seventh Street Small Stage.

I've been reading about the Cino Nights series on various blogs, including an intriguing interview with the playwright, Courtney Baron. The play, and the disease upon which it was based, sounded fascinating. I had never heard of the space, though, which surprised me. So, I did a little digging and discovered that The Seventh Street Small Stage is none other than the back space of Jimmy's No. 43, where 8 Women performed its original NYC run. That sealed it. Last I heard of Jimmy's performance space was when we left it - after it had been shut down indefinitely. I'm glad to hear it's back up on its feet. I remember Jimmy was a good guy to work with, and genuinely excited about the theater he was able to bring to light in his performance space. A person (and a space) like that is a real asset to the indie theater community of New York.

Here I Lie focuses on two seemingly unrelated characters who both suffer from the same compulsion to feign an illness, going even to self-destructive lengths - ingesting poison, self-mutilation, etc. - to create symptoms in their healthy bodies. It's based on a real disorder, which makes it all the more compelling.

The two characters, Maris, a book editor, and Joseph, a male nurse, take turns relating their stories to the audience in a series of monologues.

Maris's begins when she reads a manucript for work, a memoir of a young man with cancer. It's written terribly, she tells us, but its story moves her to tears. So, she passes it along to her boss, who is less than impressed. In a moment of desperation, facing a demotion, she tells her boss she was touched by the story because she could identify with it; she is also dying of cancer.

Delirious with the attention, yes, but moreso the power she now possesses to manipulate others' emotions, she continues the charade. Soon she is shaving her head, joining cancer support groups, taking medication for chemo, starving herself.

It is grotesque and fascinating to hear her tell it, especially as performed with warmth and sympathy Samantha Soule. As an editor, Maris boasts she "knows how to tell a good story," and her life is punctuated by this need to tell the story. And she insists - ever more desperately - that the story she is creating through her feigned illness is a good one, one that benefits others to witness. No, it's more than that. The is not just telling the story, she IS the story.

And in the end, when she takes her own life to complete the story of her own invention, and proclaims with near-religious ecstasy that the ending is "so pure," the moment is haunting.

Maris's blind and terrifying irrationality is, under the fine light of Baron's text, understandable, relatable. Anyone who would call themselves an artist can identify with this terrible need to tell a story, to open people to a new world, a new perspective, a new way of being. Anyone who has ever created can also understand the fine line that Maris rides between shameless attention-mongering, and the uncorrupted goodwill of bringing something new and beautiful to others. And anyone who as ever yearned to bring truth to a story (and what is art, really, but telling a lie as truthfully as possible?) can appreciate the awesome power in the creation of a story so whole, so complete, that one literally gives one's life to give it breath.

It scares me, but I know why she calls her death "pure."

Jospeh, by turns, chooses life where Maris chooses death, allowing himself to be spontaneously healed from his self-inflicted set of symptoms, baffling his already-baffled doctors even further. Joseph chooses hope: you see, through his work as a nurse in a neo-natal ward he becomes attached to a particularly ill premie, born to a reckless and drug-addicted young mother. He names the boy Joe, and sees himself more and more as the baby's father. Then, when little Joe dies after a month in neo-natal intensive care, Joseph becomes suddenly and inexplicably ill, and then just as suddenly and inexplicably healed again. In an effort to regain the hope he lost with the loss of his "son," Joseph makes himself the miracle the little baby could not be.

In contrast to the riveting complexity of Maris's story, Joseph's feels more obvious, less engaging. Also troubling was the relationship between the two characters, or, rather, the lack thereof. The two appear to have no apparent connection to one another, no shared history before the moment that the play begins. More problematically, though, while it's clear they exist in the same space - they acknowlegdge each others' existence, touch, make eye contact, laugh at each others' stories - they never actually respond to one another. What the one has just said never considered by the other, in never affects or informs his or her next soliloquy. The circumstance creates a kind of uncomfortable paradox: they are in the same room, but they're not. They're listening to each other, but they're not.

The conundrum leaves both of them more or less alone in a vacuum with their monologues, relating events that have already happened, a style of theater which rarely works. It didn't even work for Tennessee Williams: Suddenly Last Summer is beautifully written, and striking in its imagery and allegory - except that most of that striking imagery takes place offstage, related to us second-hand in monologue. Which, while lovely and engaging, begs the question, why am I watching this?. By which I mean, why not just read it? What makes it necessary to SEE it, on stage, in three dimensions?

Likewise, almost all of the action of Here I Lie is re-told after the action. In the play's defense, though, this particular story gives as strong an argument in favor of using this device as any I have seen. The characters do live out their lives in a kind of isolation, unable, because of their disorder, to be entirely honest or present with anyone. It makes sense that their physical presence in the play would reflect that state.

I do, however have to ask the following question: what is the point having these two characters in the same space at the same time? Or, more accurately, what is the point of Joseph at all? His story is so weak compared to Maris's, and his presence does little to nothing to affect her story as she tells it. Were it up to me, I would bring focus exclusively to Maris.

When viewed in this light, Joseph could be a credible foil - it makes sense for her to exist in the space that she does: a sort of alternate dimension, somewhere between waking and sleeping, between life and death. It also makes sense that she should share the space with a person with whom she has never had a relationship, but who shares her affliction. In this way, she is still alone, physically separated from everyone from whom she isolated herself with her affliction, but not in a vacuum. But sadly, Joseph's character doesn't realize his potential to move Maris's journey forward; he has very little to do with her at all. In the most valiant effort I've ever seen to disprove the Heisenberg ucertainty principal, Maris's story is not shaped or changed by Joseph's observation of it (and vice versa - although I'm less concerned about that). It would be more powerful if it were.

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