A Magic Hour, An Hour of All Things
One of the monsoon evenings earlier in June marked my first time attending Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon of One-Act Plays, and I was pleasantly surprised by the grab-bag of new works by four outstanding playwrights: Julia Cho, Emma Goidel, Martyna Majok, and Caridad Svich. The wide-ranging evening spanned Cho’s story of contemporary petit bourgeoisie problems, Goidel’s comic book-esque exploration of climate change, Majok’s tender exploration of living with a physical disability, and Svich’s dreamy inquiry into what it means to protest against the world’s onslaught of problems.
I have known Caridad since 2013, when I met her at the México/U.S. Playwrights Exchange at the Lark Play Development Center, where she was translating Severed Moon by Alberto Castillo. In turn, I translated one of her plays, and became very familiar with her distinctive style: a mix of fantastical storytelling and hard-hitting contemporary issues. The Hour of All Things, directed by William Carden, EST’s Artistic Director, was no exception. In it, Nic (magnificently portrayed by Miriam Silverman) describes her attempt to deal with society’s ills and evils. She displays a range of coping mechanisms, from breaking down crying in the grocery store, to attending a rallying protest and getting arrested, to obsessively counting her steps on the way to the subway. The title comes from “that time when you come to a realization of your place in the world, when everything — all things — come into view. A magic hour, perhaps, an hour of reckoning with the self,” says Caridad. “I think it is an hour of possibility, a time when you can turn a corner or shut down.”
This notion of the hour of reckoning frames the play. We feel Nic’s struggle, descending with her into her internal conflict as we progress from her description of a recent breakdown to detailing the history of her childhood breakdowns. Finally, she allows the audience to enter her breakdown, as she describes a dream-like interaction with symbolic figures who personify her relationship to society’s problems. I am tempted to describe this portion of the play as magical realism, while bearing in mind Caridad’s comment, “I always wonder if I wasn’t a hybrid Latina, would anyone mention ‘magic realism,’ when talking about my work? I think of Shakespeare and Euripides and Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy, for instance, as magical realists too.”
Fair enough, and yet the dream-like quality of Caridad’s vivid narration smacks of magical realism, in my limited personal knowledge of the genre. Caridad says, “I think that if you believe in an acceptance of the magical in the everyday world — if you accept that there is something beyond the material world and that there is a spirit world with which we co-exist, then that plays a factor in how you see the world and write about it, whether it be in contestation of such a belief, an embrace of it, or somewhere in between. In The Hour of All Things, the magical, the place where myth and fable and the fabula reside is necessary to move the consciousness beyond the what is, toward the what is possible.”
The Hour of All Things was developed in 2013 with Missing Bolts Productions, first as a salon reading, and then as a short film of the same name directed by Zac Kline and starring Blair Blaker. The play also had a Memberfest reading under Jose Zayas’ direction, with John Hutton reading the role of Nic. Caridad has intentionally played with the age and gender of the actors playing Nic, to see how the story lives in different bodies. (Baker is in her 20s, and Hutton is in his 60s.) Caridad says, “I initially thought of the piece as being one that could be performed live or could be performed as a series of multi-platform ‘installations’ — podcast, live encounter, film, etc. Sort of like a piece that for seven or eight days you would encounter one of its portraits.” The version that was produced in the EST Marathon was a shortened version of the original script.
In terms of the origin of the piece, Caridad says, “I started to think also about making a piece that felt as if someone in the audience had walked up and started talking. I am interested in play-conversations, in how theatre-making and its doing is a conversation between the space where the “performance” is enacted and the public witnesses as an emancipated spectator. I wanted the feeling of effortlessness and yet artfulness. And also, a kind of deliberately anti-theatrical theatricality.” The Hour of All Things certainly accomplishes this casual intimacy, as Nic’s direct address to the audience embodies her pendulum swings from functional to miserable.
Since the story centers around Nic’s experience protesting, I was curious about Caridad’s history of protesting in her own life. She says, “It has come in waves, I suppose. Most of my activism is centered around issues regarding the environment and protecting natural resources rather than exploiting them, and really, tending to the planet… My background is Spanish-Cuban, Croatian-Argentine. So, I also grew up with stories of family caught in the histories of Franco’s torturous dictatorship, the dirty wars in Argentina, the Balkan wars, and Cuba’s complicated legacy of revolution and dictatorship. I have made theatre in Latin America in countries where active protesting against corrupt leaders put artists and citizens in jail, and where censorship (veiled and apparent) is operative. I mention this because I think who you are as an artist, who you have met, how you think about history and memory comes to bear when you make work, even if, at day’s end, a text-builder/playwright maps the human condition and to a great extent, the self’s psyche.” Thanks to Silverman’s tremendous performance, the fervor of Nic’s activism is palpable. She also portrays several other characters in vivid detail, climaxing in her pastor speech at the protest and appealing to the masses to find community and meaning in light, peace, and liberty.
In observing Nic’s familiar anxiety of grappling with social problems that are out of our personal control, the Dickens quote from A Christmas Carol came back to me, in which the Ghost of Christmas Present says, referring to the two dejected urchins clinging to the hem of his robe:
“‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it,’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.”
Since childhood, I’ve always gotten stuck on that line, trying to parse out how and why Ignorance and Want would cling to the spirit of Christmas, lurking in its dark underbelly. Nic’s struggle to reconcile her relatively comfortable existence with the larger political and social injustices she sees in the world struck a similar chord. By attending the protest, she tries to shine a light on Ignorance and Want, and ends up facing personal consequences (being arrested and held in jail). As if society’s overwhelming need to ignore its problems actively oppresses the work of individuals to establish justice and equality.
Although Caridad didn’t have a specific impact on the audience in mind, she says, “I do hope that there will be some kind of connection, some resonance in the space between the audience and Miriam Silverman’s being-ness and presentation of Nic and Nic’s journey — from standing in a supermarket in despair at seeing herself and the rest of her fellow citizens as souls adrift, trapped in routines of comfort fueled (at times) by fear, toward one of being able to articulate a re-imagining of society, toward one of vision.” I was immediately drawn into Nic’s frank portrayal of her struggle to reconcile society’s injustices, particularly as someone who has had her share of crying in public stories.
If you would like to see The Hour of All Things for yourself, it will receive two special performances (in its longer version) to launch the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival on July 30, 2015 and August 1, 2015 starring Blair Baker under the direction of Zac Kline. Click here for more information.