End of Party
Ionesco Meets Beckett
Thank You For Coming: Play
November 16 – 19, 2016
Faye Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming: Play, a raucous, unbridled performance presented last month in its New York premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s 2016 Next Wave Festival, has quite a few things going for it. One of the strongest may be the uninhibited sense of joyous play, the likes of which you may not have experienced since childhood. I, for one, was reminded of my grade school summers, when I would assemble all of my cousins during vacations at our grandmother’s house; I would get my hands on whatever objects and clothing were around, and somehow persuade everyone to partake in fantabulous gender-bending productions, propelled by limited means and boundless imagination. Getting one to regain that sense of wide-eyed innocence and irreverent curiosity is quite a feat, and Driscoll’s company pulls it off effortlessly, with equal parts bravado and gusto.
Play, the second of a three-part body of work that Driscoll is in the midst of developing under the common title Thank You For Coming, is staged on a highly versatile, DIY-looking set, consisting of large panels of white Foamcore that, throughout the show, get folded and reconfigured in a myriad of ways including the transformation of the space from an audience reception area, to a fake proscenium stage, to a confined, Manhattan-sized room. Roughly divided into two acts, which are distinct though fairly equal in length, the work is framed by performative bookends that include the audience’s input. The stage floor is initially configured as a sort of a lobby that small groups of spectators are invited to traverse at a time. Before proceeding to the seating area, spectators contribute to the content of the show by filling out index cards with exclamatory statements. During this prologue, performers roam around the stage, each armed with a stack of collected cards, singing droning laments conjured in real time with the text provided by the incoming audience. (At the tail end of the show, Driscoll herself sings a heart-wrenching supplication, reading from, judging from the size of it, the evening’s worth of collected cards.)
The show’s first act sees the wildly diverse, versatile cast of six—aided by occasional interventions from the sound designer Bobby McElver and Driscoll herself in a stage manager/director role—rotate through a dizzying array of characters as they ferociously execute a contemporary version of a medieval morality tale. The meandering fable follows the rise and fall of Barbone, a gender-fluid Everyman-type character in pursuit of fame portrayed and narrated, in turn, by each of (and sometimes a pair) of the performers. With Foamcore panels configured to improvise the wings of a proscenium, the stage action messes with the classical theatre conventions, though the uncontainable action indeed spills over the remainder of the stage floor (and sometimes in the aisles of the auditorium.) It is compelling to watch the cast rush headlong through the piece, switching roles, costumes, and styles. As this act wears on, I see elements of slapstick, Kabuki, Commedia dell’arte, pageantry, Lecoq, and more, but the overall weirdness and the raw joy with which the performers overcome vulnerability (they perform bare-bottomed throughout) and obstacles that are flung in their direction managed to keep me afloat for the duration of this act. The biggest surprise (and my personal favorite) comes roughly halfway through the first act when Driscoll, supported by the entire cast on various instruments, roars her way through a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it, fuck-you song against the unnamed president-elect. However, while Driscoll’s uncanny punk anthem is possibly the show’s most potent section, I find it equally its most problematic one. In the midst of a piece that (intentionally, I would argue) negotiates in ambiguities and open-endedness content-wise, the contrasting immediacy and urgency of Driscoll’s number feels tacked-on and imbues the show with a kind of a message that it is otherwise lacking. For the sake of clarity, I don’t find the show’s open-ended nature problematic in and of itself; curiously, I find that the disconnectedness of this brief, albeit potent, section from the rest of the narrative weakens the dramaturgical fabric of the piece overall.
Play, in homage to its title, indeed borrows a great deal of influences and conventions from the theatrical canon, and a radical switching of gears is involved as the piece transitions into its latter half. While the first act may have invoked the likes of Ionesco, the second (and final) act comes with a distinctly Beckettian flavor. With the proscenium gone, performers now in their street clothes, and an overall more starkly naturalistic demeanor, the stage action is mostly confined to an area that outlines a footprint of narrow kitchen. As the cast performs simple, life-like spatial arrangements and quotidian gestures on repeat, a silently lip-synched conversation gets gradually un-muted, revealing greater detail with each additional iteration, with other script elements that one recalls from the first act. While the cast executes this section with sheer precision and bravura, I found the exercise to be increasingly tedious as it wore on. Unlike the show’s first act, this one mostly relied on a single gimmick, which revealed itself (and fizzled out) too soon to warrant half an hour of stage time—nearly half the show’s duration. In conversation with some of the co-creators, I learned that this section was only ten minutes long in a previous version of the show, which only corroborated my reservations about its unnecessarily extended duration.
Overall, Driscoll’s latest work is buoyed by powerful theatricality, excess, and no-holds-barred performances by a uniformly excellent cast, but the disconnectedness between its different sections, and the tenuous relationship with the audience (which is purported to be the key investigation with this trilogy) undermines its best intentions. It seems, however, that the director/choreographer and her team will continue to explore the way in which this show’s disparate parts want to coalesce, so I feel hopeful that, as Thank You For Coming: Play undergoes transformations through upcoming performance engagements, it will land on a weirdly balanced footing all of its own making.