Ariel Stess Broke My Heart
I should begin by stating that Ariel Stess is a friend of mine. We went to school together, and have worked together in the past. It is from this position of friend and fellow artist that I will try to articulate what an exceptional and important writer I think she is.
Stess’s new play, Heartbreak, at the Bushwick Starr (only through May 30th!), is not a topical play but rather one that breathes. It delivers emotional daggers through its repetitive and hollow language and impassive staging. The pain of heartbreak as a state of being vibrates in the air and seems to infuse the characters with a destitute yet comedic dryness.
The story of the play, perhaps the least important part, begins with an image of Stell (Mary Rasmussen) vigorously scrubbing the sink to “make sure there’s nothing in there.” Enter Stephen (Richard Toth) who takes over the chore with equivalent focus and determination. We learn they are expecting “the company” for a “company meeting.” Mell (Seth Clayton), and Brell (Paul Ketchum), inch worm in (actually crawling on their bellies) and the bumbling overgrown Kell (Noel Allain) arrives late with his dead “dawg” whose nose is every so slightly, and very sadly emerged from a black trash bag. Stell quickly and easily takes control of the company meeting, usurping power while Stephen is conveniently “incapacitated” on the kitchen floor later to be used as a couch.
Stammy (Seth Clayton again, the transformative giant) and Starra (Keilly McQuail, downtown darling) are Stephen’s children of a previous marriage. Their mother lives elsewhere. Starra has returned from her apartment in the city. She is home with, surprisingly, “Heartbreak, what to do about that?” Her father is less than helpful as well intentioned fathers often are. He has nothing much to say other than make sure to “never be alone. Never without a partner person.” Right.
With very few words employed, the profound distress of finding a home no longer a home is potent; your childhood bedroom turned into an office (awful) and your forest cut down. But Stess’s sardonic humor lifts us with cyclical bouts of wordplay and miscommunication. The audience gets to follow threads of logic for a loop before we lose track and are forced to latch onto a new system. Stess spins distinct universes with her language which folds in and out like a drunk kaleidoscope:
Looking into a little forest for US?
Forest for us. Stell – us. Looking into a little forest for us. Sorra Stara. Not for Stara.
Hoe-kay. I get it.
Yall sleep in awfuls. I might wake ya. Early morning mourning. Recently.
Hoe-kay. No dats fine. I’m mourning person too.
Oh. Okay. Okay. Dat’s nice.
The characters feel like they are trapped inside the English language, in a cage made of the alphabet. There are layers of meaning buried beneath the words, exposing how words are used versus what they are actually able to convey. “I’m really busy,” can be directly interpreted as “I don’t want to do that.” Or “I love you,” on the phone means “goodbye.”
The strange distancing of Stess’s language articulates pain in a sharp and visceral way. There was something extremely moving about the way the two siblings, Stara and Stammy, communicate on the phone. They verbalize on the brink of affection but their mutual understanding and intimate awareness of the others experience is demonstrated in the ease of their back and forth.
I had a dream just now that you were on this train that never came up from
underground but it got self phone reception so we still got to call you and say hi
Could it Skype?
Yeah. Skype too. And text.
Everybody leaves home.
Dad says everybody.
I just got to work now. Can I go and talk to you later?
These conversations made me long for that specific comfort of a relationship where you can say, “Can I go now?” instead of making up an excuse, which I think is what is at the heart of the play: the necessity, or maybe just niceness, of a relationship in which the wealth of shared experience carries meaning so words don’t have to.
When I read Ariel’s work, I find myself thinking: “Is this feminist? Is it political?” And ultimately my answer is yes. I think work that deals with a woman’s experience in any sort of real way is inherently political. The way that Stell’s power, really the most dominant character, slowly and subtly overtook the play, was due to a rocking marriage of Stess’s writing and Mary Rasmussen’s exceptional performance. As a beautiful ingenue type, Mary played a middle aged woman with a child in her eyes. Her strength isn’t blatant or obvious, but it is unapologetic. I have seen Mary in some exciting works this year including Uriel Acosta at the Chocolate Factory and Supposedly Fun Thing, but never have I seen her in such command of the language and the play.
Heartbreak was a play but also an event, which is really what we are all going for. The audience shifted by the end of the night and we descended onto Starr Street with even less control over language than normal. I bumped up against every word that came to mind, not to mention the ones that made it out of my mouth.
Ariel’s writing has always (hallways, as Stephen would say) reminded me of Beckett, first and foremost; It has dryness and simultaneous playfulness within the economy of each line. Her style, void of emotion and melodrama, reminds me of Richard Maxwell, but with a better sense of humor. Her articulate female characters remind me of Melissa James Gibson, but more fucked up. Stess has more plays in her and it is an exciting to think about the body of work she has yet to create.