Thursday, January 24, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Heart of Darkness" (on Len Jenkin's Dark Ride)

heart of darkness
by Douglas Messerli

Len Jenkin Dark Ride / New York, Soho Rep, November 13, 1981 / the production I saw was a revival of the play at the Soho Rep in early 1996.
Len Jenkin Dark Ride and Other Plays (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)

Although I originally published this play in 1993, saw a production of it in 1996, and have read it a couple of times since, I still find it difficult to describe the effect of the masterwork. Like its title, it is a theatrical-like “ride” through the slightly crazed minds of its characters: a Translator who is unsure of every version he attempts of a Chinese work titled The Book of the Yellow Ancestor; a young woman, Margo, whose boyfriend has suddenly gone missing; an insane occultist, Mr. Zendavesta. who has hired the translator; a slightly perverse Jeweler, Ravensburg; a Thief, the missing boyfriend of Margo, who has stolen diamonds from the Jeweler; a freelance General; and various other figures such as a Waitress, the owners of a small café and creators of various carnival rides, Ed and Edna, and the strange Mrs. Lammle (wife of Carl Lammle, which—although is spelled differently—calls up the pioneer of American filmmaking), who appears to have come out of different play!

     In the Soho Rep revival which I witnessed, the audience, if I remember correctly, was seated in the center of a vast, slightly raised diorama, upon which the various scenes of the play took place. At first, these characters and their stories appear to be unrelated. The Translator tells of the impossibility of working with his text; Margo sits in a room reading, watching television, and listening to music where, oddly, the Jewler, Ravensburg, talks to her; the Thief enters a café, the Embers, where he encounters the Waitress and the cook, Deep Sea Ed; the General explains a series of nonexistent encounters where each side attempts to trick the other, arguing that “the more likely an opponent’s action seems the less likely it becomes.” Yet from the beginning Jenkin encourages us to perceive mysterious links, most often by beginning with words or actions similar to those with which the previous scene has just ended.

     Soon these interlinkings grow more complex as unlikely figures encounter each other and often seem to know incidents of their life. By the end of the play, in fact, the playwright has whipped up a strange story with a bizarre logic. Ravensburg’s jewels have been stolen by the Thief, and the jeweler appears to be working with the General to track them down by luring the Thief to an occultist’s convention, headed by Zendavesta, in Mexico. Margo is kidnapped to serve as bait, and Edna invited down to perform.

     Throughout, the characters speak of “coincidence,” which often seems the most predominant element of the work. Mrs. Lammle tells us a story of Madame Edna giving a young girl waiting outside her fortune-telling parlor a Charlotte Russe, meeting her again, years later in an expensive restaurant, where once more she shared her Charlotte Russe. The two meet up a third time at the convention where Charlotte Russes are served as dessert, where Madame Edna, attending another affair, becomes lost in the basement and, to seek help, knocks on the same girl’s door.

     There is also, underlying the different tales which make up the “dark ride,” a series of metaphysical potentialities. Zendavesta believes that we live on the “inside” the earth rather than on the surface, and is looking for the way “out.” The Translator’s text seems to hint at some magic potion or some edible, transformative substance. Mrs. Lammle speaks of The Book of Revelation. Ed and Edna have long ago created fun-house rides, including a version of Ezekiel’s wheel. Yet these feel, in their hints at the hokiness of a great deal of American religiosity, less enlightening than slightly satiric. And, in the end, each of the characters appears to accuse the author of having turned to philosophy rather than action, one by one repeating “I’m not interested in philosophy. Just tell me how it ends.” Like a ride, “coming and going” ends Jenkin’s Dark Ride, with the various enticing stories connecting in some places and falling apart in others.

      Any connections, consequently, are left to the audience not to the author to sew together. What Jenkin has marvelously whipped up is a whirlwind voyage through the heads of dark dreamers which includes most the favorite American pastimes: invention, acquiring wealth, love, dreams, religion, perversity, and violence. Put together they spell something, even if one cannot completely translate the magic talisman. If nothing else, in Jenkin’s heady brew, they absolutely entertain!   

Los Angeles, January 24, 2013


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