Production Photo: “The Law of Remains.” Copyright John Zalewski
I have come to the conclusion that plays never end. They just look like they do.
I have no academic credentials to back this claim up, just an accumulation of anecdotal evidence scrabbled together over two decades of working with alarmingly smart directors, playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, and actors.
I am not talking about remembering plays, about feeling sentimental about favorite plays, or about failure to wrest oneself from resentment over lousy ones. I am not attempting to slight live theater’s gorgeous immediacy, the agreement between audience and performer to suspend conventional time and set the clock to something else.
But I suspect that agreement contains an addendum that might read: plays live on in a rearrangement of how their audiences experience the world, and that this apparently secondary function is actually primary.
On REZA ABDOH: A RETROSPECTIVE
“No matter how harsh the creation is, you must give it as a gift. You must permit and encourage the audience to have a shifted perception, either radically shifted or subtly, so that they don’t quite experience the world the same way after seeing a piece of theater or a performance.” – Reza Abdoh
I am sitting in a darkened room on the third floor of MoMa/PS 1, watching my younger self pretend to stab actor Tony Torn with a pair of scissors on a floor-to-ceiling screen in the late Reza Abdoh’s epic cris de coeur Bogeyman.
Reza was the director I felt I was born to work for, though his untimely death allowed us only four years of plays.
Reza had been born into a extraordinarily wealthy family in Iran, whose fortunes reversed at the onset of the Iranian Revolution. Reza’s father and his two younger brothers fled to Los Angeles. Once there, Reza told his father that he was gay. His father disowned him, and died of a heart attack not long after. Reza and his two younger brothers became briefly homeless, and Reza worked in kitchens and may have turned tricks to support his early theater productions. His work was beginning to generate attention when he tested positive for HIV, then still a death sentence. Reza responded to his diagnosis by working with breathtaking speed, creating wildly ambitious, searingly angry and entrancing performances until his death in 1995 at age 32.
One stipulation of Reza’s estate: that his work never be staged again.
“Let me teach you the secret of the world!” Tony Torn yells to me on screen. I lower the scissors. The action shifts: actors Ken Roht and Carl Burkley dressed as sailors dance to a furiously sped up sample of The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys while actor Cliff Diller is hung by his feet and submerged headfirst into a tank of water above them, where he stays for way longer than most could, pressing his hands against the side of tank, his long green braids floating like a halo made of snakes.
I don’t know if Reza ever explained to anyone why he never wanted his work done again, but it was a choice I’ve always supported. Reza’s company worked painfully hard to realize his plays – but they were always his. To do a Reza play without knowing that he was pacing behind the last row of audience because he couldn’t bear to sit still through the performance, would feel like Hansel and Gretel with all witch and no crumbs. Reza’s plays would inevitably slump without him, the breakneck pace would slow, the fever pitch of emotion would cool and meaning would drift. Or the performances would become mawkish laments, their original honesty long expired. It is possible – and reasonable – that Reza decided to cut his plays out of the world so no one could mess them up.
But I believe that Reza’s choice to shut down his work to new production was more complex than that – a paradoxically generous refusal.
About a decade after Reza’s death, I found myself sitting in front a class of freshman theater students. Their teacher had invited me to speak with them immediately following a screening of Reza’s The Law of Remains. I came early and watched the grainy video along with them, wincing at the poor sound quality, and for the moments the camera had missed. Then the lights flicked on, and I headed to the front of the room.
I don’t clearly remember the preamble spoken by my professor friend, because I was scanning the students’ faces, trying to figure out what they had made of the murky artifact they’d just seen. The discussion that followed was stilted. The Law of Remains had been inspired by the once infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, whose rampage was enabled by systemic racism and homophobia. I asked the students if they had heard of Dahmer. Only one of them had. In The Law of Remains, Reza placed the Dahmer story inside Andy Warhol’s factory, with Warhol scrambling to make a movie about the murders. I started to talk about Andy Warhol, and a student raised his hand:
“Who is Andy Warhol?”
Only four of the students had heard of Andy Warhol.
A student raised her hand. “How did Reza get his actors to do all that crazy stuff?
“We wanted to do it.”
I realized then what I probably should have known going in: that these very young students had no direct experience with AIDS as a siege.They didn’t know how that sense of emergency forged performances that felt like they had been set on fire, that had to be raced through and screamed through as if speed and intensity would save us all from ashes. Shortly after Reza’s death in 1995, life-extending drugs became available. AIDS remained a scourge, but for the privileged, no longer fatal. But this change of fortune had a startling consequence: in the shift from calamity to imperfect stalemate, a generation of artists essentially vanished. Countless artists who might have become elders to the young people I sat in front of had been erased. Even their loss had been lost.
I’ve since spoken to almost every class that’s invited me over the years, feeling called to try and shout across the abyss: “Hi! There were artists – Reza and others – whose work might have united the specifics of your experience to some large, ecstatic mysteries… Please trust me on this!”
And over the years, some of these young artists began hearing this call. It started with a few emails from students forwarded by their teachers – polite inquiries about Reza’s plays, sometimes followed by an invitation for a coffee.
About 10 minutes into each meeting, each would lean forward and quietly ask their particular question about something that they had seen in Reza’s archive and could not shake- a moment that had caught and pulled them toward the past and simultaneously sparked a vision of their own artistic future.
I believe that Reza, with his enormous faith in the power of his work, had known that slicing his plays out of the world would mean that when the next generation encountered the videos and faded ephemera they would be forced to reckon simultaneously the crazy beauty of his work and the gravity of its loss; that his refusal fused absence to presence in a medium that is better when it opens a door to both.
In the screening room at MoMa/PS 1, Bogeyman played on, in a deftly remastered and outsized version of the archival video split into a triptych, so in moments, closeups of Reza’s actors stage right and left stare unseeingly across a center image filled with long shots of the frenetic dancing and the three story high metal set. These moments didn’t happen in the play, but they ring true, uncannily capturing Reza’s young company staring down the heartbreak they would soon face. I watch from a chair off to the side, because it’s impossible for me to sit still and I don’t want to distract the other viewers. Bogeyman closed 26 years ago after a five week run a the Los Angeles Theater Center. Nonetheless, watching the video sends my nervous system into high alert. I feel myself turning into my own understudy, preparing myself, physically and psychically, to dive into the video. If my video self falters – I’m ready. I have the primitive and dutiful brain of a devoted actress, with a connection to a beloved director that has never been severed, and I’m certain I’m not the only one of Reza’s company who lives this way, poised to step into these plays, if we are supernaturally summoned.
And “IF” isn’t the word that comes to me first. It’s when: when we are summoned.
ON BABETTE’S FEAST
“Most art is to be possessed and is evidence of something–our good taste, our acquisitive proclivities… it is there and can be seen all the time. The theater demands attention and evanesces….in its immediacy –when we have done our deep work–it strikes an eternal chord.” – Karin Coonrod
Babette’s Feast, the play I’d been performing in for the better part of a year, not counting the developmental readings that preceded it, had just closed, and I was deep in what my husband, actor David Patrick Kelly, calls “the decompression,” the time after a show closes and the actor is untethered, mourning the loss of imaginary people and pining for unreal landscapes. Symptoms of decompression include 1. irritability 2. mood swings 3. and in some cases, enormous relief. The decompressed may go online too much, assailing their friends with the last load of show photos: “And here we all are in our 19th century villager costumes, and we are all checking our phones during tech, so we each have a weird rectangle of blue light in our villager faces — ha ha! #anachronismsrule #actorslife”
Or a decompressing actor might skip the Internet altogether, and eschew all public transportation as well, to take melancholy walks to the coffee place, the gym, the grocery store, imbuing all encounters with a secret significance, gazing uncomfortably long into people’s eyes, because that’s a thing we actors do a lot; stare into each other’s eyes, on the hunt for truth and connection.
My Babette’s Feast decompression was severe. Outside of the rarely produced work of Danish playwright and World War II martyr Kaj Munk, it was the only play in which I’d ever encountered my ancestors: fanatical Scandinavian pietists, and, as severe as they were, I felt bereft in their wake.
In 1950, the Ladies’ Home Journal published Isak Dinesen’s short story, Babette’s Feast. Dinesen was short on funds at the time, and was eager to crack the lucrative American magazine market. A friend of hers encouraged her to write about food. “Americans are obsessed with food.” Dinesen took her friend’s advice.The food in Babette’s Feast is spectacular, and was rapturously photographed in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film version (arguably cinema’s first “foodie” movie.) But Dinesen, being great, transcended dinner. Her feast is an act of radical generosity enacted by Babette, who had been the renowned chef at the celebrated Cafe Anglais, but turns up in Berlevag as a desperate refugee from the Paris Commune, where she is timidly accepted by an isolated and dwindling community whose members are starving themselves to be closer to God.
About a decade ago, an actress named Abigail Killeen heard Babette’s Feast invoked in a Sunday sermon and sensed its theatrical power immediately. She located the story (in the aptly titled collection Anecdotes of Destiny,) secured the stage rights from the Dinesen estate, then reached out to playwright Rose Courtney to adapt Babette’s Feast for the stage. Killeen knew from the start who the director should be: Karin Coonrod. She had done a staged reading with Coonrod years before and never considered anyone else.
Karin Coonrod is a director who understands transcendent feasts. Acclaimed for her insight into Shakespeare, she also regularly stages joyful, quixotic street performances for her peripatetic international theater company, Compagnia de Colombari that culminate in celebratory meals shared between performers and audience.
After a decade of research and readings, Babette’s Feast premiered in 2018 at Portland Stage in the dead of a Maine winter. It couldn’t have been more well timed (a play about welcoming a refugee in response to the xenophobia of the newly elected Trump administration) or better placed (Portland is not officially a sanctuary city, but has welcomed refugees from around the globe.) Coonrod eschewed kitsch ideas of Scandinavian blondes and assembled a deeply talented, multiracial cast, led by the extraordinary Michelle Hurst as Babette, a move that for me conjured Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great challenge: “All is contained in each.” Coonrod’s version of “all” in the obscure “each” of Dinesen’s tiny, arctic town of Berlevag invoked the presence of all small towns and their capacity to shun or embrace the outsider.
Coonrod brought in a team of thoughtful, astonishingly talented designers she has collaborated with many times. Designer Oana Botez’s costumes were sculptural riffs on the cage-like clothing of mid-19th century Scandinavian pietists, laced with a strange magic: one jacket included long tails that allowed the performer to embody the horse he rode in on. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Gina Leishman,created a dream-like score drawn from pious hymns and ancient Norse music, much of it played on a glass tier, an extraordinary instrument Leishman assembled from crystal goblets.
Staging the feast proved a fascinating challenge. The 1987 film lingered over Babette’s extravagant dishes, extreme closeups catching the dark gleam of caviar chiaroscuro’ed by cloud-like cream; glistening, slightly terrifying quails enrobed in golden pastry; amber amontillado warming cut crystal glasses. Coonrod gave life to the feast by ditching the food. Set and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind created a long, transparent lucite table on wheels, and set it with clear glass dishes, white cloth napkins, candles in silver candlesticks, elegant silverware – and nothing else. Our feast was glass, language, mime, and meaning. This was smart, because theater can’t do cinematic closeups. This was brilliant because Coonrod knew theater doesn’t need any.
Babette’s Feast’s final ecstatic image invoked the northern lights through hundreds of pieces of sea glass strung on wire just out of reach of the villagers during the clumsy but heartfelt dance they would have considered sinful before the feast. (From my Scandinavian perspective, the sea glass also conjured fish skeletons on traditional open air drying racks. Scandinavia’s famously revolting Christmas food. lutefisk, dried cod soaked in lye, was traditionally made this way; though curiously Dinesen does not include lutefisk as one of the Scandinavian dishes that horrifies Babette.)
Portland Stage director Anita Stewart programmed talkbacks that featured advocates and activists from resettled refugee communities, and brought in busloads of high school students for special matinees. Several of the high school kids from small towns hours from Portland had never seen a play before. And then the play transferred to an Off-Broadway run, in the venerable Saint Clement’s Theater, still an active church.
So the production was beautiful and felt necessary, but that wasn’t entirely why my brain was refusing to delete its files, and was instead impatiently waiting for me to step into the cold Scandinavian air. It was my ancestors’ fault.
My ancestors came from Frederikshavn and Lolland, Denmark, not Dinesen’s poeticized version of Berlevag, Norway (Dinesen accurately portrayed the harsh landscape, but inserted a fjord where none exists.) My ancestors included at least four generations of Lutheran ministers, who preached an uncompromising strain of the denomination: you are born sinful into a sinful world and all you can do is resist, imperfectly. My father recalled some rules: no dancing, no card playing, no laughter at the dinner table, and that his minister father found FDR’s New Deal suspicious, as it might interfere with God’s will. My father also recounted an argument between his father and grandfather, who lived in the church rectory in Denver, Colorado. Over Sunday lunch, my grandfather, who taught Old Testament at a small Danish American college, remarked that the Book of Job was “a great drama.” This incensed my great-grandfather. Theater was a tool of the Devil. My great-grandfather leapt from his chair and attacked his son. My father remembered their fight spilling out onto the rectory lawn.
These ancestors of mine were grandiose as well as volatile. My father explained it this way: they viewed the clergy as a kind of impoverished nobility, and that this explained why my ancestors saved nearly 40,000 of their own letters written between Denmark and the United States. This collection of letters has been archived as an example of the Scandinavian immigrant experience by the tiny college at which my grandfather taught. The archivists sent us a slim volume of selected letters years ago, which I did not read until I was cast in Babette’s Feast.
The letters were compelling , though not always for their content, which was often quotidian. They shone with longing for connections severed by distance; were studded with beautiful, old school names (Viggo, Jensine, Laurine, Maren…) as well as with occasional tantalizing references to the news of the day (from a critical view of The Spanish American War to a breathless description of the crash of a train that three of my ancestors had elected not to take at the last minute, so they could mail yet another letter.)
I read their letters daily in Maine, in between learning lines and staging and brushing up on the French Revolution to better understand Babette. I began to feel I had become one of the letter writers myself. My letters to my ancestors spiraled through my head. Dear Maren, Dear Jensine, Dear Viggo, Dear Laurine…. I am your descendant. I am an actress. It is highly unlikely that you ever saw or even read a play. But I am wondering – if you met this company of actors and me pretending to be versions of you – would you be horrified? Flummoxed? Charmed?
Would you be offended to know that I have taped your pictures to the wall of actors’ housing, to imagine myself into your dark, heavy clothing and to borrow the gaze of your eyes? What did you look like outside of these photographs, each of which was a formal studio occasion, one of only two or three times that you were photographed in your lives?
Would you understand if I tried to tell you about my experience of being an actor? How I spend my time pretending to eat invisible food in imaginary landscapes assembled by an agreement to believe in them, which then dissolve, over and over? Your Protestant faith claimed only two rituals as sacraments: baptism and communion. You believed God showed up and transformed water, wine and bread. I believe that theater does similar transformative work. Is there any chance that you could see that as something other than heresy?
Dear Maren, Jensine, Viggo, Laurine,
Now the play has closed. And it has continued, by bursting into many untraceable shifts of perception. For me, the shift is all questions, all for you, all unanswerable. I’ll get another job soon, and these questions will recede. But someday, somehow I will find another play that has you in it: a reunion of sorts, and a chance for my questions to grow stronger, more necessary, to turn their gaze out toward the larger world.
I can’t wait.