The Present Witness
About two-thirds of the way into Daniel Fish’s extraordinary A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (currently playing at Under the Radar), one of the performers recites (assisted/commanded by a pair of clunky headphones piping in a recording of David Foster Wallace’s voice) the text of DFW’s How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, in which the author travels a serpentine critical journey from absolutely trashing 1970’s child tennis star Tracy Austin’s positively insipid “my life in sports” memoir to, by means of questioning his consistent deep hunger for these sports memoirs despite their uniform almost comic banality, positing that a lack of compelling inner narrative is precisely what enables a star athlete to be a star athlete, that it is that same complete unselfconsciousness that both allows the athlete to perform under extreme pressure in front of a large paying audience and denies her of any ability whatsoever to reflect on or narrate that experience.
It’s a great moment in the show. And it just about sums up my experience of watching this piece – devoid of selfconsciousness, drained of inner commentary, completely, and wholly, present.
Allow me to back up just a tad. We’re in the Anspacher Theater at the Public (the big one with the red velvet chairs that’s in a ¾ round or, I guess, thrust configuration). The stage is covered with an even grid of tennis balls. At the base of the upstage wall is a mound of maybe three hundred tennis balls, making what looks like a lumpy ramp up the wall. Taped on the upstage wall is a photograph of a tennis player I can only assume is Tracy Austin (scratch that – I just looked it up. It’s totally Tracy Austin.) Downstage there is a large mechanical tennis ball hurler hurling tennis balls at that posted up photo of Tracy Austin. It’s pretty delightful when the balls hit her right in the face.
Then the show starts. Four performers enter and each don the kind of big clunky headphones audiophiles like to brag about. Then they start to talk:
“Hi. I’m David Foster Wallace,” they each say. As we soon figure out (or knew beforehand), they have audio recordings of David Foster Wallace, culled from various books-on-tape and interviews, piped into their ears. They deliver the text exactly as they hear it – not quite aping DFW, but certainly embodying his particular cadence.
Sitting front row center is the director, Daniel Fish, who live-mixes the audio recordings before our very eyes, at times speeding up the tempo of the recordings with what I can only assume is a sort of Mephistophalean glee, to the point that the performers are all but writhing on the ground trying to deliver the text.
They go through seven or eight short stories and essays, with a few interludes presumably culled from interviews. The staging is spare but precise. The performers, virtuosic.
Now, I must say that I pretty much knew all of the above going in, and I realize now that I had a pretty set expectation of what this performance would look and feel like. I expected it to feel like PERFORMANCE, to feel like ART, to feel FUCKING POSTMODERN, MAN. Which is to say, I thought the joy of the piece would come from the spectacle of this impossible task being achieved in front of me, that my pleasure would be one of sadism in watching these poor hapless performers have to recite this unrecitable text, and that my experience would be one of cool, distant reflection.
I am happy to report that the actual show could not be further from that bad dream of performance art, that it is surprisingly warm, intimate, and emotional, not the dispassionate intellectual exercise I (certainly unfairly) expected.
It’s meditative. It’s quiet. It creates a certain ineffable kind of spiritual joy. I didn’t want it to end.
(This might be a good time to mention that I’m a pretty big DFW fan, pretty big being the operative word there. I haven’t read Infinite Jest, nor do I have a great desire to, but I freakin’ love his non-fiction writing, and have read a good amount of his short fiction too. All of which is to say that I went into this performance having read just about everything the actors were going to perform, and while I’m sure that informed my experience in some way, I’m not sure it’s within my power to say just how.
That said, I’m rather confident that if you went into this show having never read a word of David Foster Wallace, you would have an experience at least somewhat resembling mine, perhaps only without the little bumps of fanboyish glee whenever we got a new text.)
The experience is centered on the extreme presence of the performers, a brand of presence I can only assume is experienced by the likes of trained monks and lamas. They are so in the moment, so ready, so open, that, as Fish forewarned me when I interviewed him, the text plays them. Oftentimes they writhe in a way reminiscent of a Pentecostalist speaking in tongues, and indeed it is hard not to feel as if you are witnessing a spirit move through them. Like Tracy Austin, they empty themselves of any inner being, any commentary, any “acting.” (Or, rather, I can only assume this is the case, because otherwise I would have no fucking idea how they are able to perform as they do.) Instead they become sheer vessel for these words in a way that is crystal clear, selfless, and astounding.
Watching them, I found myself vacillating between sheer astonishment and utmost empathy. Fish himself seems utterly aware of this dual line of thinking, and he uses it wisely (for instance, having one of his performers continuously perform jumping jacks while delivering a text about the almost impossibly degrading life of a bathroom attendant – in a text about deep, painful empathy for somebody whose job it is to be invisible, we feel a similar sort of empathy for the transparent performer exhausting herself for our benefit. It’s a complicated feeling, and Fish finds a way for us to see it from several angles at once.)
Throughout, one can’t help but feel the shimmering correspondences between the text and the performance, evidence of Fish’s almost surgical curatorial/directorial hand. Some obvious examples shine through, e.g. talking about the performance of a gifted athlete while watching gifted performers perform, talking about empathy while empathizing with a physically straining performer. But there are smaller, subtler connections, tiny little metaphors that create a transference and heightening of meaning between the text and its context – a word paired with a gesture, a sentence with its placement in space.
For the first twenty minutes or so of the performance, I tried to write these little correspondences down in my program. I tried, feverishly, to record some of these words and phrases that just seemed to gleam with multivalent meaning. Eventually, though, I gave up – I couldn’t keep up. Just watching was too demanding.
When the lights came up after the show, I realized that I hadn’t even clicked the lead out of my mechanical pencil, so all my feverish note-taking resulted in little more than an oddly scratched up page.
My experience trying to take these notes is perhaps the best metaphor I can draw for the experience of this show:
- You sit there, you try and try to hold on to what’s said, to make meaning, to think and reflect, to use your aesthetic distance like mommy told you you should.
- Eventually you give up thinking, give up reflecting, the distance collapses, and you surrender to the presentness of the moment.
- When it’s done, little stays with you. Time feels erased. It almost feels like a dream.
Indeed, writing this right now, just a day later, is an enormous feat of strenuous recollection – though the show was ninety minutes, and though my attention was rapt the whole time, I can tell you little about the particular experience. I can’t reflect. I can’t narrate. The best I can do is render an impression.
And I think that that is the true gift of the piece. For ninety minutes, I could feel like Tracy Austin. I could void my mind of its chatter, its self-consciousness, its reflections and games. I could, for once, be completely there.
It was fucking incredible.