I went to see TELEPHONE on Tuesday night with no idea what to expect. I knew that it was an adaptation of a 1989 book by Avital Ronell – I had a vague memory of reading an essay of hers in the magazine MONDO 2000 back in the early 90’s. I remember her being in some weird performance group and in my mind I kind of lumped her in with Kathy Acker and that whole world of impenetrable writing. I am a big fan of Ken Rus Schmoll’s, I’ve always enjoyed Gibson Frazier’s work – and that was about it. I was alternately puzzled, delighted, intrigued, bored, frustrated, fascinated and engaged. Overall it is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is extremely well done and Birgit Huppuch – who is new to me – delivers an amazing performance of one of the most daunting monologues I’ve ever encountered.
TELEPHONE is a fantastic show for sophisticated theater palates, probably less so for the casual audience member. The play reminds me of nothing so much as Beckett. The first part is this high-concept vaudeville two-hander (complete with footlights) between Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Watson. The middle part is kind of like Lucky’s monologue in Godot. The third part is like the dark quiet psychological existential wasteland of many of Beckett’s shorter plays.
The first part is pretty accessible and entertaining, meditating on the implications of the telephone in a light but thoughtful way. It is particularly relevant now as the internet is making us re-examine, yet again, the nature and signficance of physical presence, the fallibility of memory, the effects of mediation on experience and relationships, etc.
The second part, while delivered in a virtuoso performance by Birgit Huppuch (and I really can’t say that enough. She is really, totally, breath-takingly good), is nearly impenetrable. I found myself struggling to find a way in, and finally just letting go and watching Birgit go through this startling array of emotions and thoughts. Part of me wondered if this was, in some way, supposed to suggest an interior monologue of Alexander Graham Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard, who was deaf. Bell’s history with the deaf community is fraught and though many of his inventions were, initially, created to assist the deaf, in the end most of them ended up privileging the hearing. As a result the modern deaf community kind of has a special circle of hell reserved for Bell. So I kind of imagined this monologue as a startling and difficult portrayal of internal chaos, but also a physicalized/vocalized expression of the alienation of the deaf from the hearing, of the Cassandra-esque dilemma of having vision & knowledge but never being fully understood. And, of course, the frustration of being in a romantic relationship with this intrinsic barrier.
The third part was my favorite part – dark, mysterious, intimate. One had a feeling of omniscience, of being a secret listener on the fiber-optic telephone highway, a random stream of intimacy, loss, love, absence and the struggle to connect. It was haunting and beautiful and moving.
Um. So. Yeah. Like I said – not for everyone but if you’re up for a really amazing, challenging, intriguing and ultimately rewarding theatrical experience, go to the Cherry Lane and check out TELEPHONE.