Cara Scarmack made a pact with a Devil
Watching Before You Get Too Far Afield is no doubt making a pact with the devil.
Or, at least, I think it is.
And it sounds like the piece’s playwright, lyricist, director, and co-composer, Cara Scarmack does too (the performers, Priscilla Holbrook, Katie Proulx, and Cassandra Weston, also composed music for the show).
She began the piece while reading deeply of some of the elite curmudgeons of the Modernists: Marinetti and Pound. Drawn to their various justifications (sometimes outright love) for war and violence, their hammering lyricism, and especially the Futurists rejection of things past, she began writing Before You Get Too Far Afield to dabble in just these things herself. These writers, as she says, seemed to be all about the rupture. “Marinetti,” she said over a Limon Pellegrino, “is a deeply disgusted and agitated individual. He has made a kind of pact with the devil.” I guess sometimes revolutions need a bit of the devil in them.
But the curmudgeons aren’t the only influence on the play. Before You Get Too Far Afield sits in the shadow of Marinetti and Pound’s cataclysmic rupture in two world wars. It is also in that shadow where her grandparents grew up, fought their own war, and worked to make America into the economic and political powerhouse it remains today. Though she expressed admiration for what they were able to accomplish, she sees the near ruin that it has left the country in, morally and physically. One of the great treasures in the script is the song ending with the phrase “these godforsaken neon tacos,” reminiscent of the fast food joints that simultaneously fill the gullets of Americans with cheap, sodium-packed, factory-farmed meat and fetishizes a subjugated culture’s culinary history. This rich line encapsulates Scarmack’s synthesis of what has been left for us as we lean into our own rupture. The previous earthquakes had served to break down the past and create room for new growth. “Everyone needs an earthquake every 7 years or so,” she said. “This play is meant to be an earthquake for the spectators.”
And this is where the music comes in, it being a familiar sound: “The music tends to simultaneously open up the spectator and encourage them to say, ‘Oh, I don’t mind so much that I’m not sure what’s happening in this play—go on, would you? Just keep shoveling the music every now and then and I will do my darndest to follow this present state of affairs to the next state of affairs.’” Something like a palette cleanser for the theatrically disinclined. It’s always worth it to see a Cara Scarmack play for the music, which, she says, is deeply entrenched in “melodies of Appalachia.” It’s a perfect complement to the text, which moves from debates on what to do with piles of transient garbage to lamentations of the loss of farmland to the “mechanized death traps” of industrial agriculture.
But hold on one second. All this talk of earthquakes and ruptures contradicts the title of the piece, Before You Get Too Far Afield, which, ostensibly, implies a drawing back in of something that has gotten out of hand. The play itself seems to embody the cognitive dissonance that has plagued Scarmack’s target generation, and probably every single generation after that (maybe every single one before that, too). Believing in one moment that two mutually exclusive ideas are both true begins a slow, but nonetheless violent, psychological rupture. A ha! Rupture! We’ve found our earthquake. And Before You Get Too Far Afield is a dramaturgical goldmine as far as those are concerned. The characters of the play, from Paulet to Earnest Funeral, go through many ruptures as they change from one character into another, protest the ethereal Moostincoff’s heading off to war, and go to work everyday to awkwardly wrestle dead chickens while wearing too large gloves and galoshes. It’s a delicious mix of nonsense shot through with a clear critique of the ethos of mid-20th-century America. And the tunes are downright badass.
While watching rehearsal for the play, I felt that I was always teetering on the edge of watching utter, perfidious nonsense (“the goof” as she calls it) and perfect brilliance. Cara Scarmack cultivates that feeling in her work. And surely it’s the work of the devil that she is able to collapse the goof and the brilliant into an eminently compelling whole.
Before You Get Too Far Afield is at JACK in Brooklyn August 13-23. Tickets available at http://beforeyougettoofarafield.bpt.me/