That Time I Left You For The Burlesque Dancer (a response to MAGIC TRICK)
Mariah MacCarthy’s play Magic Trick unfolds itself over the course of about two and a half hours in semi-fragmented short-to-medium length scenes, weaving a narrative that functions primarily as a lover’s messy triangle story (in which one person leaves a second person and shacks up with a third party, with complications) and with touches of the ‘small town girl makes it big’-type drama in which a woman finds herself by learning burlesque dancing (and in the process falls in love with, or seduces, the instructor, depending on your point of view). Neither formal structure fully dominates, which creates an interesting tension throughout the evening as we wrestle with where we think this thing is taking us and what insight it offers with regards to the act of falling in and out of love, the wisdom of leaving someone in the middle of the night, what it means to be a person who is constantly leaving other people, and (while it’s not directly addressed by any of the characters) how selfish is too selfish; i.e., at what point do we give up on a person whose worldview is internalized to the extent that it only contains their individual wants and needs, no longer able to empathize or consider the needs of others.
It would appear that each of the play’s three characters inhabit some corner of this internalized self-absorbed state. There are outwardly-seeming generous actions undertaken: the professional burlesque dancer (Clara, played by Kim Gainer) helps her fledgling and adorable student (Bana, played by Chet Siegel) move out of the bad boyfriend (Eric, played by Ethan Hova)’s house in the middle of the night. Later, Bana visits Eric on his birthday, under the guise of not wanting him to drink alone. All of the characters, at some point in the play, offer to buy the other two a drink. I’m trying to think of something that Eric does that feels outwardly generous and am coming up with a blank, but he’s not exactly a villain; more a needy man-child who lives off a trust fund but isn’t comfortable calling it that, and who can’t seem to keep his apartment clean. As portrayed by Mr. Hova, Eric can be sweet at times – and his neediness is charming for awhile, but there are cracks in his facade and the play forces him into some dark places from which he will not (in our eyes) recover.
In the world of Magic Trick, no one is a good person, and even gestures that appear to be made out of empathy or generosity are probably self-serving in one way or the other. And so, perhaps, would our own lives appear, if diced and cut and shown in a specific sequence without full context. There’s definitely an intentionality in showing us only these specific moments in each character’s trajectory. Nor does the play try to overly explain itself; we’re not totally sure what Bana sees in Clara that makes her interested (pseudo-romantically), and we’re equally unclear on what either character might stand to gain from the other. Sex? Emotional support? Or just a place to crash until the next place comes along? What we do know, emphatically, is that Bana shouldn’t be with Eric. This certainty comes from what we learn during a scene that occurs fairly near the beginning of the play (perhaps six scenes in?) in which Bana, at the six-month mark of their relationship, tries to move out. She claims to not be breaking up with him, but she has asked him repeatedly to clean up his apartment and he hasn’t complied. This messiness wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal, but Bana is disabled; her legs are paralyzed, and she uses a wheelchair. What Eric does to her that night to prevent her from leaving is tantamount to an assault, and yet she stays with him for another year and a half before finding a way to escape.
Ok, so wait, back it up – yes, Bana is in a wheelchair. For viewers of the play, obviously, this is apparent at the very top. As a means to examine how one’s response itself changes just through the revelation of this physical circumstance, and since Bana doesn’t talk about her disability very much and the play takes her for exactly who she is with laser focus on her personality, it seemed like an interesting challenge to see how long I could write about the show without invoking the wheelchair. After all, Bana (the character) has seemingly built a fairly thick wall around her identity, and isn’t interested in being identified or viewed as ‘the girl in the chair,’ and so we (the audience) should be able to give her that much, right? We are challenged to resist the temptation for it to become her defining feature. At least during the scenes that we are privy to, Eric and Clara don’t press for details, nor do they appear to be attracted to her (or repelled by her, depending on the scene) based on her physical disability. It’s just, a thing. They occasionally ask the big questions you might want to ask if you were in their situation, sneaking them into casual conversation. (Bana’s response to Clara’s asking how she lost the use of her legs; “I got attacked by a bear.” “No, you didn’t.” “How do you know?!”) We actually get the most detailed information regarding the specifics of being in a relationship with a person in a wheelchair through a scene that occurs with only Clara and Eric, at his apartment after Bana has moved out, in a relatively disturbing moment during which Clara asks / forces Eric to physically demonstrate to her in what positions he had sex with Bana.
But the chair – even if it’s possible to talk about the play for awhile without bringing it to the forefront – has huge impact. Bana is unable to leave at key moments – she literally can’t get out of an argument if you’re standing in front of her. The chair motivates her to try to leave Eric, and deters her from being able to. It makes her stand out in the burlesque scene, and allows her to bypass Clara on the professional circuit (unfairly, from Clara’s point of view). Bana’s unwillingness to reveal certain details from her past (for example, her real name even) betrays a sense that she’s unwilling to think about what’s happened to her, how it has happened, and is perhaps not totally dealing with her current reality – so in this way, the sheer presence of the wheelchair colors our interpretation of what’s not being said or shown on stage. And theatrically, it caused me inspect the actor more closely – as played by Ms. Siegel, Bana is funny, witty, attractive, and always quick with a joke, the better to distract you with. She’s also a liar, and manipulative. But all this detailed rendering of character is occasionally distracted by the physical blocking of the play, which often requires Bana to (for example) leave her chair to pull herself into bed, or (within the context of the burlesque numbers) physically lift one leg up and prop it on the other to remove articles of clothing. The distraction is intentional, in that it focuses on the effort required, the extra amount of time, the sheer difficulty level of living with Bana’s disability. But it also runs the risk of making us overly aware of the actor – Chet Siegel is an able bodied performer.* Her performance is excellent, but there is occasionally the awareness that she’s… well, you know, playing a role. I found myself wondering how she managed to keep her legs so still when lifting them up like that, for example. It made me also wonder what the casting process might have been like; in my own artistic practice, I believe strongly in casting the best actor for a role as opposed to casting by “type.” Would I feel motivated to rethink that philosophy in this situation?
Another question pops into my head, harkening back to the earlier examination of each character’s habitation of various self-absorbed states of being; when is it okay to be selfish? Bana, for the most part, has to look out for herself. In doing so, she’s constructed a reality in which no one else gets to do that for her, to the extent that she rejects what is offered to her freely (being in a supportive relationship, or the chance to be considered ‘an inspiration’ on the burlesque circuit). Her behavior is motivated, I suspect, by the desperate desire to remain in control of her image, of herself. Viewed in this way, her actions make sense; we’re able to support her despite various failings to do the right thing throughout, just as we’re able to recognize that it’s her actions that ultimately cause her to, at the end of the play, find herself alone. Well, actually, she’s in a swan suit. Performing burlesque. But solo this time, no partner in crime or passion, no one on stage but her. And maybe that’s just the way she’s wanted it the whole time.
*I reached out to the playwright with this question, wanting to contextualize my query. Her response: “I believe passionately in casting authentically whenever possible. Here’s the thing: New York is an incredibly inaccessible town, and roles for disabled actors are pretty few and far between as it is. Christina, our director, has worked at Theater Breaking Through Barriers, which exclusively does work about/featuring disabled people, so she came into this process already knowing quite a few disabled actors. We also have contacts at Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, who help organizations such as ours to cast these kinds of roles authentically. And even with all that, the number of age- and type-appropriate disabled actresses who are even remotely New York-based, according to people whose job it is to know these things, is in the single digits.” Mariah goes on to note that they had a great deal of interest in casting a disabled actress, but ran into scheduling difficulties, and that they are delighted with and privileged to have Chet play the role (as they should be – she’s great).