Thursday, August 28, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "There Are No Such Things as Crows" (on Mac Wellman's The Lesser Magoo)

there are no such things as crows

Mac Wellman The Lesser Magoo (published in Crowtet 2, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003).
Mac Wellman The Lesser Magoo, performed by Bottom’s Dream Theater at the Ivy Substation, Culver City, California, 1998.

Even if you cannot “go home again,” Wellman suggests in the final installation of his astounding Crowtet series of plays, The Lesser Magoo, some few do slink back into the fold, becoming re-assimilated into a world even more brutal, perhaps, than the one they left.
     The first scene of Wellman’s play may read simply as an intense interrogation of a man, Mr. Torque, who cannot properly answer the questions because—just like the audience—he does not entirely understand the questions. However, I remember it from the original 1998 production as performed by Bottom’s Dream in Culver City, California and directed by Katherine Owens, as an intensely horrifying interchange between a would-be employee and his future bosses who can’t wait to torture him. So absurd are the interchanges between Torque and Mr. Candle and his assistant Ms. Curran—to say nothing of the appearance of a former, how dead employee, Joegh Bullock—that we feel we have entered the territory of a slightly familiar spy story, where the hero (if Torque could ever be described as a “hero.”) must suffer a torturous interrogation to survive, that we hardly even perceive, upon first hearing, the insanity of the questioners and their assumptions. If in Second-Hand Smoke numerous characters, particularly those in high industrial positions, spoke in seemingly meaningless phrases, here they patter on as if they were speaking of some mythical world out of a fictional creation such as the Harry Potter tales:

curran: And, Mister Torque, do you know the precise location
of the Bad Place?

That Torque has in fact gone to Princeton to obtain an education in these arcane facts, turns the entire series of interchanges into a hilariously absurd situation, at which we can only nervously laugh, being totally uneducated in such a baffling illogic.

torque: The Bad Place lies deep within the Forest of Whim.
In the deep, interior regions.
curran: And?
torque: And he holds sway there who stamps with a sliver hoof.

If all their talk sounds a bit like a strange religion which employees are required not only to share but to reiterate as a creed of sorts, well….I am sure Wellman, given the concerns of many of his plays, would welcome the analogy. What began as a sort of collegial nonsense of shared social organizations akin to the Masons, the Odd-Fellows, or the Shriners has now become a required value system of dark magical beliefs unable to be questioned. The somewhat bizarre dances of foreign and forbidden phrases has hardened into required systems of fabrications which if questioned immediately define one as an “unusualist.”
     So terrifying are the beliefs uttered by Curran, her boss Candle, and even the interviewee that any theater-goer or reader of Wellman’s four plays cringe when we, soon after, come to discover that the mean-spirited Curran—whose questions Mr. Torque least understands—may be the lost dreamer Susannah of the plays previous.
     If this first horrifying act is characterized by the author as a “bounce”—a bump or thump as a crate dragged down the steps (as defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary)—the second longer act of this play is defined as being a series of “ricochets,” as these monstrous beings and others—including Candle’s wife Ruth, his daughter Tessara, and old speechless man, Mr. Foss, a mindless literary figure, Gabriel Pleasure, an ex-senator and country-cousin of Candle, Candle Prosper, and a strange woman from Central Asia, Aunt Sycorica—gather at Candle’s country estate for an all day dinner party. Like most such grand gatherings, no one says anything of value to anyone else; indeed hardly anyone can communicate for more than a flashing instant. If Foss says nothing and the ghost of Joegh Bullock, despite his pleas, remains unseen and unheard, so too do all the attendees of the grand event organized by Mr. Shimmer (a relative perhaps of Mr. Glitter in the last play?). Much like the two young girls, Susan and Linda of Second-Hand Smoke, who turn every sentence into a series of patter songs, so too do Candle’s guests grab every random phrase to bring it into meaninglessness through a musical concatenation, as did most early musical comedies which Wellman’s play joyfully mocks:

curran: [in response to a comment by Gabriel Pleasure] How
clever. First generation scare-head stuff. And I had you
pegged as an unabhorrent. Albeit an unusual one.
                     Gives her a look, and
                     then bursts into song:
gabriel pleasure: Scam. Scam. Scaly scam.
                                   Climb the side-pipes
                                         and back again.
                                   Oh, steady state. Steady state.
                                   Steady state,
                                   Steady state. Steady state. Steady state.
                                   My stick-dad name.
This goes on for two more pages!
      Among these Midsummer Night’s Dream-like fools, only the innocent and young Tessara, the almost missing and always disappearing Foss, and the pleading ghost seemingly have anything to offer, and by Act III, they alone, followed by the all-too-knowing Curran, retreat into a glade deep with the interior of the forest, which may, in fact, be the location of the Bad Place.
      It is only in Tessara’s faltering perceptions and self-evaluations and Curran’s attraction to her that we finally realize that the formerly wild young Susannah knows that she has now completely lost her way, having become someone who now has become what she used to so bitterly hate. And for the first time in the play, she admits “I’m not so sure of a lot of things.” Although that may be a good sign, it is also clear that she is now unredeemable, that she is now “odious and pathetic.”
    Only Tessara can see the dead, can hear the unwanted pleas of Joegh Bullock’s ghost. And only Tessara is ready to admit that she does know the language of those about her: “I don’t even know what a Julia set is.” The previously quiescent Foss speaks, declaring that Tessara, even if a little “piffle-headed,” is too good “for this rat’s-ass sewer of a Moonhat.”  Foss ends up even denying the route that Susannah had previously taken in her search for a way out: “There are no such things as crows.”
    Just as Susannah had temporarily tried to escape the world in which she was entrapped, Tessara—like the small Roman tablet of wood or ivory that was used as a token) has a ticket to leave, to travel out the ruined world inhabited and partially created by her father and mother.
     A golden light surrounds her at the moment she transcends into the heavens, allowing, at least, Susannah’s imagination to “carom,” rebound into space, transfigured as another, before turning back into the whirling dance of death, like the tarantella she hints of in her last lines: “Tarantantara. Taratantara. Taratantara.”
Los Angeles, August 28, 2014