Saturday, February 2, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Past Present Future Tense" (on Eric Overmyer's On the Verge)

past present future tense
by Douglas Messerli

Eric Overmyer On the Verge (or The Geography of Yearning), collected in Christopher Gould, ed. Anti-Naturalism (New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1989).
Fanny, Mary, and Alexandra, three strong and adventurous women, are at the center of Overmyer’s play, first performed in 1985 at Baltimore’s Center Stage. These three women are good friends as they trek through Terra Incognita in the late 19th century, adventuring—dressed in dresses with backpacks and umbrellas—from the Himalayan mountains to the depths of Africa, busy keeping their journals along the way, with they share with the audience. Although they are aligned in their sense of adventure, they are each very different, at least by type: Mary, the eldest, is, as Overmyer describes her: “the leader, a passionate scientist, ebullient, joyful, not dray or academic. She is from Boston, but not affect a pronounced Boston accent. Fanny, from the Midwest, is conservative, but with a “wry wit.” Alex, the youngest, is “an apostle of the future, she is most modern, most out of place in the Victorian world. She has boundless energy.

      In short, they represent a spectrum of attachment to the past, present, and future; hence my borrowing the title of one of my own plays (by Kier Peters). By play’s end, as they reach the “verge,” a world of the 1950s, beyond the time and space of their own lives, Mary tredges on into the future to discover yet further “new” worlds, while Fanny and Alex remain in the present, Alex completely embracing the present by writing Burma Shave adds and music lyrics, with Fanny accepting the present somewhat critically, her sensibility still attached to the past.

      Fortunately, Overmyer does not make too much of these structural positioning in time, but allows his characters to constantly surprise us with their abilities to encounter what they previously have not experienced, including a young yeti, who attacks them with snowballs; Fanny’s husband Grover, whom she leaves behind in Terre Haute, and who eventually divorces Fanny while she is away on her voyage; a rapping Gorge Troll who demands they pay him to let them pass; and numerous other figures (all played by the same actor) who challenge and threaten them.

      But perhaps the most fun of On the Verge is in the second act when the three women begin to discover unidentifiable objects from the future, at first in the form of an eggbeater (reminiscent, strangely, of the discovery by two sexual adventurers in Djuna Barnes’ early short play, “Five Thousand Miles”), and then, through osmosis, objects and most particularly words and names that do not yet exist. Suddenly they have inexplicable knowledge of things that have yet taken place:
alex: The Grand Tetons are a lovely little range
fanny: Someday they will be preserved as a national park
                                       by Teddy Roosevelt.
mary: Teddy Roosevelt?
alex: I’ve never heard of him.
fanny: His statue is in front of the Museum of Natural History.
mary: In New York? No. It is not. Not when I was there last.
fanny: Certainly not. That statue will not be erected until 1936.

Before long they are discovering clippings from 1972 and mouthing names and words such as Nixon, Mrs. Butterworth, Burma Shave, Cream cheese, and Robert Lowell. Meeting a character named Mr. Coffee, Fanny discovers she has been declared legally dead by Grover, who has remarried and grown wealthy. They all three meet the purveyor of a nightclub run by piano player Nicky, who hires the somewhat malapropistic Alex to write Burma Shave jingles, and allows Fanny a much-needed bath in a Jacuzzi and her first taste of Cool Whip.


      Throughout Overmyer whips up this dizzying feast of words into slightly phenomenological or even metaphysical events, but luckily doesn’t carry these issues so far that the play loses its slightly perverse sense of humor. And in the end, Mary floats off into the “zeeroxen” with a silly package of jargon which is at the heart of Overmyer’s comic work:

See you later, alligator. Au revoir, bon voyage. Stay dry. Try to write.

And Mary’s final speech, a sort of hash of Rod Serling and Carl Sagan, speaks of the wonderment of these proto-feminist women:
Billions of new worlds, waiting to be discovered. Explored
and illuminated. Within and without. The nautilus shell
mimics the shape of the Milky Way. Quarks and quasars.
My face is bathed in light from a vanished star. (Beat) I stand
on the precipice. The air is rare. Bracing. Before me stretch
dark distances. Clusters of light. What next? I have no idea.
Many mysteries to come. I am on the verge.

A bit like Wagnerian heroes, these three women put all their sexual energy into the voyage of life itself, living out their adventures as an almost physical desire, as opposed to submitting to the passive, demanding, and threatening men their encounter along their paths.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment