Photo by Matthew Dunivan
There are few things more likely to turn me off to a realist play than fake food and drink. Piehole’s Ski End, presented at the New Ohio Theatre through May 19, is hardly in proximity to kitchen-sink-drama territory, but even if it were my worries would be unfounded: maybe halfway through the show, Hannah (played by Emilie Soffe) takes a sip of her “hot chocolate” and, as much to her own surprise as to ours, spits it out because it’s just the powder.
It was one of the more convincingly spontaneous moments of devised theater I can remember having seen; it rendered me absolutely tickled. I liked it so much, and was pleasantly reminded that theater is capable of effecting such a moment. I didn’t quite follow the specifics of why the ragtag ensemble found themselves here, with chocolate powder and then vodka to inadequately replace what they’d lost. By this point in the show I had more questions than answers, and as the show continued I would mostly have more questions. But, this moment felt to me the exemplar of where Ski End lived: the textures and weirdness—Why would someone take a sip of what they knew wouldn’t satisfy?—rubbed up against one another in densely tangled skeins, and although they never quite wove together into something I might wear or identify, they left me with a pleasing and frustrating knot.
“What was ski?” This short line spoken halfway through, with a tinny old TV playing footage of planets slightly upstage in the background, seemed to get at the play’s central preoccupation most succinctly.
In a literal way: the ensemble adeptly shows the strangeness of skiing’s motions—scoot and swoosh, twist, pivot, hang, dangle—and lexicon—snow bunnies, slope babies, green circle, black diamond, blue square—especially when abstracted. They speak the words and stretch them to all sorts of far-flung situations, and they scootch and scrape using old-fashioned skis and a stage, no incline or snow. The more they lived in this place of oddity, the more they showed us how even the seemingly most mundane spaces—like a ski rental shop, for example—holds a complex, full history of traces that most people rarely deem worth remembering, even as the dust of them sticks stubbornly to the walls of the places themselves and the skulls that pass through them.
In a resonant, symbolic way: what will happen to the concept of ski when the polar ice caps melt? the alarmist in me couldn’t stop thinking. What will happen to all these forgettable, mundane aspects of “culture” that hardly seem to merit the label, once all of them are stripped away one by one?
In a middling, pragmatic way: what happens when people are displaced, in any context; when every physical object and thing that a person knows is eradicated, what is left of her identity? Can a person really be said to exist without his stuff, without a sense of his own space?
The character who pensively asks about the ontology of ski is Carla Sagan, a realtor trying to sell this abandoned, severely flood-damaged ski shop. She is also prone to philosophizing: “What can I say? Catastrophes and miracles that seem improbable in a hundred years… are inevitable in 100 million years… But irrelevant in a hundred million more. [Beat.] Plus the location—!” Just one example of her charm: astute and slightly baffling.
Carla Sagan (played by Alexandra Panzer) feels to me like an Our Town Stage Manager analog, guiding the audience as potential buyers through a strange space but also through a strange, multileveled world, a world where we don’t even know quite where she exists. As she describes, the ski shop goes way back—“way, way back”—in space and in time. She seems to misstep by suggesting the latter is literally true, and perhaps this explains the existential confusion everyone who steps inside this shop seems to fall under.
The core ensemble—Nate, Hannah, Vic, Paul, and Laurie, according the program—seem to arrive at the ski shop by accident. Soon, however, they seem overtaken by something—in the air? in the electric wiring?—and begin a convoluted and mercurial role-play. They casually switch names, again and again, but they’re bad at it, in what feels like an intentional “bad improv” aesthetic. “Hey, how’s the weather out there today, Chase and CJ?” Paul (as Keith) asks. And it takes a second for Nate and Hannah to respond, like they’re mannequins being woken up to new identities each time it happens. Maybe fifteen minutes later they’re now “Cooper” and “DJ.” And so on and so forth.
This disorientation is further expressed by the continual stream of cliché phrases, gestures, and topics of conversation that make up much of the script. Like an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode gone wrong, where they riff on each other endlessly to an absurd conclusion, except their goal is not to reach new comical heights (as characters, that is), but rather, I think—emphasis on the uncertainty—their goal to try and figure out why these bits of reliable communication, so useful in so many situations and so trustworthy to mean exactly what they appear to, are really failing to serve them now. And while it may just be because they’re doing an elaborate role-play with or without meaning to, it seems to want to express a shadow reality—that we are always on the brink of language-failure-despair. It’s just that, usually, convention conspires to blind us to it.
And convention conspires with all it’s got. Boring stories are anxiously recounted, with deadly high stakes placed on everyone’s ability to remember it the same way (and then visible panic when they don’t). Hannah gives a “weather report” that seems to be a fruitless attempt to warn the others of something she can’t feel the contours of but which she knows to be sinister. Paul as Keith (played by Ben Vigus) responds with a dismaying “Hey, I’m gonna pop into town to pick up some gas for the generators, someone wanna take over here while I, uh…” Everything is somehow off, and nobody is actually talking about it.
One by one the four others create an excuse why they can’t help Paul out; Vic as “Molly” (played by Toni Ann DeNoble) responds with the absurdly familiar, “Sorry Keith, I need some ‘me’ time.” Though the reality behind these words isn’t clear, it is abundantly clear that such an excuse at this time is myopic to the point of self-sabotage.
This line resonated so strongly for me with today’s landscape: Jordan Kisner writes about the rise of “#selfcare” on social media in the wake of the election (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-politics-of-selfcare), and Vic’s declaration reminds all of us of this paradox. “Looking out for number one” feels especially important as the world around you shifts, cracks, threatens to disappear… but maybe this attitude is precisely what needs to be put aside if we are to face the issue head-on, form coalitions to address that which is stressing us all out so much. Everyone needs a break, but does “stress” not pale in comparison to chaos and disintegration?
I can’t be sure this is what Piehole intended, but their exquisite togetherness as an ensemble—which popped the most when they sang small hymns together like “I am a boat without an oar,” “I am a blasted tree, the bolt has entered my soul” in multi-part harmony—did relay that whatever was going on was a matter of life and (at least psychic) death.
In the final third or quarter of the piece, the ensemble is finally and forcibly pulled from the odd role-play they’ve wrapped around themselves. Three teenagers, one boy and two girls enter to hang out in “their space.” The worlds collide and everyone feels weird about it, compacted by the reappearance of the realtor, discussing the potential sale of the ski shop, to the dismay of the teens. I start to get another hint of resonance: gentrification, there are no safe spaces, &c….
Because the thing about this jump-cut is that the teens are all people of color. And the way in which it seems they are meant to signify “the future,” “change,” those who are informed educating the less-woke mostly-white group of adults, felt slightly unconsidered, tone-deaf. As the role-play of the ski shop dissolves, so does the ski shop entirely as we are somehow catapulted into outer space, with a black light, characters in paint-splattered ponchos, slowly twirling and bouncing what seems like glowing white beach balls. To the side of all this, Vigus sheds both “Keith” and “Paul” to speak as himself, as does Kijani-Ali Gaulman, no longer “Ken” (one fo the teens). They have an improvised discussion about their upbringing, and attempt to find common ground, and Kijani shares his mixed feelings about the Bronx, where he grew up. When Vigus expresses that he too has an ambivalent relationship to his hometown, it is almost laughable that it is Seattle, which is at least colloquially known as one of the whitest big cities in the U.S. It is unclear whether or not the ensemble is in on the joke, and that’s what worries me.
Although the show fell off the rails for me at that point, I enjoyed the meditative “outer space” time to meditate on why. Was I being too hard on the piece? Was I missing something? In a piece that seemed so preoccupied with misfires—while at the same time being performed by a group so satisfyingly on the same page—it felt appropriate that the end took a risky swerve like this, which for me, didn’t pay off. Instead, I would have loved to have seen a little more of the summary on the website made explicit in the script, but maybe that says more about me than it does about the show.
Still, I was profoundly moved by moments and details within this intricately created world, and in this way the show successfully created a stage that became so much huger than the small New Ohio Theater, and it really did feel like it went way back (way, way back).