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Douglas Messerli | "Heart of Darkness" (on Len Jenkin's Dark Ride)
heart of darkness
by Douglas Messerli
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.
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
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!