Mallory Catlett’s “This Was the End” at the Chocolate Factory

Paul Zimet and James Himelsback in "This Was the End." Photo by Brian Rogers

Paul Zimet and James Himelsback in “This Was the End.” Photo by Brian Rogers

“What can we do?” asks Sonya, a despairing, lovelorn 20-year-old, at the end of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. “We must live our lives […] We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us.”

It’s not exactly an optimistic outlook. Still, the end of Uncle Vanya at least grants a certain dignity to the struggles and disappointments of life. But for director Mallory Catlett, it never rang true.

“The last scene of Uncle Vanya has never worked in any production I’ve seen,” she told me in a recent phone conversation. “I always imagined them years later, with Sonya still taking care of Vanya, medicating his depression.”

Catlett’s new theater piece, This Was the End, which plays at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Queens through March 8, takes those “long evenings” of toil into senescence as its subject—in fact including a scene in which Sonya prepares Vanya’s raft of daily pharmaceuticals. In the piece, four of Chekhov’s characters—Vanya, his niece Sonya, his friend Astrov, and Yelena, the object of his obsession—played by a cast of remarkable older actors, grapple with past trauma by interacting with phantasmagorical visions of themselves in a live sound-and-video remix overseen by G. Lucas Crane.

The main set piece is a large wall that was recovered from Mabou Mines’ space in the PS 122 Community Center in the East Village before renovations began in 2012. Whitewashed, with the old-fashioned flourishes and moulding suggesting numerous layers of paint slapped on top of one another, it’s essentially a contraption of four different doors: one narrow closet door and three large square ones. The middle door bears an old red sign stating “Smoking Permitted.” The play begins with the sound score, dissonant noise layering on top of itself, before any actors emerge onstage. A couple seconds in, the wall suddenly seems to go out-of-focus, and then to begin blurrily jumping about. The effect is from a video projection of the wall perfectly mapped across it—the blurring results from shifting the projection so that it no longer properly lines up.

Sonya is the first character to enter (played by Black-Eyed Susan). After the opening sound-and-video sequence ends, she peeks out of one of the doors, her two long braids dangling, and steps out. In quick succession, she begins opening the other doors in the wall (revealing Crane, who operates the tech behind the “Smoking Permitted” door) before running around the end of the wall and disappearing.

Then she comes back out from one of the doors, except this time, she’s pursued by a video projection of herself, in the same clothes. They repeat the same actions, opening and closing doors and running around as though in a bizarre game of tag, the video-Sonya sometimes following just behind, sometimes leading. Other performers enter in much the same way. Sonya reveals Vanya (Paul Zimet), looking nearly bedridden, an old man in a disheveled robe. But he, too, is soon running around, by turns pursuing or pursued by impressions of himself.

As the show develops, the units hidden in the wall are clearly established as a site of memory. The actors can enter them and exit them to interact with ghostly visions of themselves are their companions. Meanwhile, the area downstage from the wall becomes the site of present interaction. A table and a couple chairs are rolled on. Sonya sets out pills from Vanya to take, which he violently throws off. There are scenes of dialogue between the actors, but mostly these are fragmentary half-soliloquys, in which the characters more often than not talk past one another. More concretely, the layering dynamic introduced by the video is mirrored with audio recordings: Several times throughout, an actor will recite a long monologue against a recording of his her own voice reciting the same. The text, in such cases, seems like a semi-improvised riff on bits of Chekhov’s play.

The inspiration for the interplay between recorded and live performance came from Roger Shattuck’s 1968 critical survey of Marcel Proust, Proust’s Binoculars. Using the metaphor of binoculars—in which magnification for each eye is individually manipulatable—Shattuck argued that optics provides the key for understanding Proust, with the interplay between the microscopic and telescopic providing for the misrecognitions and non-linear engagement with memory that provide the structure of In Search of Lost Time.

The arc of This Was the End is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which a trio of lovers is forced to constantly relive the traumas of their ménage-a-trois. Except for Catlett, whose play permits for a real-world as opposed to Beckett’s vision of perpetual purgatory, this recycling of past trauma is a metaphor for depression. Although the indulgence in memory leads to a sort of mental collapse, leaving the various actors collapsed in a heap on the floor as Crane’s dissonant noise blares, the ending—a moment of relative calm in which the technological wizardry is stripped away, is anything but cathartic. Instead, the characters find themselves still trapped in the same moment Chekhov’s play—decades in their past—leaves them with, as Black-Eyed Susan repeats part of Sonya’s despairing closing monologue as a fragment: “We will rest…we will rest.”

The casting in This Was the End is one of the show’s most remarkable aspects. Just as the wall that forms the centerpiece of the set speaks to decades of downtown performance in New York (Catlett told me the wall can be spotted in the film Fame, which was filmed in part at PS 122, which funded the last major renovation of the building), the cast collectively have more than a century’s experience in downtown experimental performance. Black-Eyed Susan began her career with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater in the 1960s. Paul Zimet was working with Joseph Chaikin by the early 70s, first at the Open Theater and then the successor Winter Project. Rae C. Wright spent over a decade with the NY Street Theatre Caravan, and James Himelsbach has a lengthy resume of work with the likes of the Foundry.

Also worth calling out is the design. Keith Skretch is responsible for the video design, but the central nervous system of the piece is all Ryan Holsopple, who continues adding to his resume as a leading performance technologist. G. Lucas Crane–an experimental lo-fi punk DJ and the co-founder of Silent Barn in Brooklyn–is the artist who actually live mixes the entire performance. Crane’s art though is essentially analogue: He mixes with a pair of tape decks hooked up to a sampler. In order to give him control over the video, Holsopple placed touch-pad sensors on top of Crane’s gear, which allowed his standard audio set-up to manipulate the video simultaneously, creating a seamless integration of video and sound elements in which the performers are forced to interact.

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