Getting Down with the Floatonality
Jim Neu taught me who John Wayne was.
We were rehearsing for one of Jim’s plays Gang of Seven, and I had a line referencing the famous actor. I asked sheepishly, “Who’s John Wayne?” and Jim just grumbled. It was one of those deep, disturbed kinds. A sound so disgruntled and in disbelief towards a generation that idly forgot his childhood hero.
Jim passed away in July of 2010, and Gang of Seven was the last of his plays to go up during his influential lifetime. I am so honored to have had the experience of working with him. He was a John Wayne of downtown theater; the deep lull of his voice, the stoic, calm presence. These are unforgettable. And like a true cowboy of the experimental scene, he was always pushing the boundary of the rugged unknown, strengthening the field of American performance and drama through his unique voice, reinventing language in his plays. The clincher here, which truly made him the cowboy, is that he was never one to show off his brilliance or to bathe in the spotlight, not that I remember. Rather, his energy was more subdued, always accessing a mighty, unseen force, which he never flaunted, and with which he did so much good.
The Floatones is one of Jim’s masterpieces, re-envisioned by the ‘intergenerational’ duo, Catherine Galasso and Keith McDermott. Keith, who originally performed in The Floatones 20 years ago on this very stage at La MaMa, is a longtime artistic collaborator of Neu’s. The performance was, as expected, Neu-esque: I imagine Keith had a hand in this, establishing the peculiar performative essence of each character that makes Jim’s words come alive, while Catherine’s minimalist choreography and staging genuinely complimented and enhanced this world. I was especially taken with the brilliant casting, each actor fitting into Neu’s archetypes. There is nothing outdated about this piece. The text is strangely viable (perhaps more so than ever), and the staging insinuates just the right amount of movement and structure so that the words can really wash over us.
The play is about four characters who have, in their own ways, deep-seated theoretical and conceptual issues of self-identity and with living and relating to other people and the world at large, and so they’ve decided to join “an encounter support group/ four random people/ standing together/ being there for ourselves.” The delightful nonsense of people who barely know each other, and who actively don’t care to know each other, coming together to sing and dance to us about their philosophy of how to get along with each other and yourself is, believe it or not, more than enough to sustain a 50 minute performance, leaving you wanting more by the end. The play is in a continual contract between the wildly abstract, and elusively specific. A whirlwind of ideas and thoughts are spoken and sung at a rapid pace as performers follow rhythmic speech patterns, jingles, and songs, which at first seem to make no sense at all. You find yourself listening to them anyway, because they’re just so damn charming, dapper, self-interested. The strange thing is, as the play progresses in this barbershop-quartet-meets-friendly-infomercial way, certain words and sentences begin to pop out, evoking brief moments of understanding. I began to notice something much, much deeper than the surface of what was happening in front me. Which begged the question, what is underneath the surface of a Jim Neu play?
I think it is a kind of overwhelming loneliness, the kind that will eat you whole. A tundra of alienation and ordinariness. The characters sing to us in this seemingly ignorant, passive way (which actually allows us to listen better, I think), and when you begin to listen to the words, to truly listen to them, something loosens up, sediment becomes disturbed, and I found myself beginning to question my own human behaviors and tendencies. How I, like the characters on stage, have been consumed with my own needs and planning, and the great gap between the identity I share with others and how I actually perceive myself. Is there a limit to the capacity of how much we can give each other? Should we give in to this limit? And when we touch each other, are we actually feeling it? In my mind, this play takes place in this liminal space, the very small gap between two fingers touching.
And then there are lines like, “I identified with people who didn’t remember me.”
I hear this, and I am reminded of where we are living, inside the chaos of digital information and endless points of access, and perhaps the closest thing we have to individuality and personal identity when everything is visible, is anonymity. And yet, this is also the thing we fear the most. At this point, Jim amusingly dares us to practice post-communication. A post-understanding. Floating above meaning. Was he joking or was he being real? Maybe we have to get down with the Floatonality to find out.
The beauty of a Jim Neu play is that you always enter into it as a lamb, and you come out the other end having gone through an evolution of thought.
He is one cowboy who will be tremendously missed for a very long time to come.