Forgetting, Remembering, Forgetting Again – a dialogue on watching via ‘tiger tiger’

Photo by Lee Weller

Photo by Lee Weller

Dan O’Neil and Jennifer Cayer attended ‘tiger tiger (on the nature of violence)‘ at Dixon Place on separate nights.  Then they wrote this:

Dan O’Neil: So, I saw it!  And you saw it.  Shall we move forward with this dialogue-based response?  If so, I guess we can consider this the beginning.  I was struck by how many times a word popped into my head (while watching) that might be capable of describing what was happening, and that word was usually one with neutral to negative connotations when typically used in a critique…  words like ‘incoherent’ or ‘chaotic’ for example.  But there was, at least for me, enough logic inherent in the piece to make me feel that, while the descriptors are the right ones, they should be used to describe this performance in a positive way.  So, like, brilliantly incoherent.  

What words popped into your head?

Jennifer Cayer: Yeah, I was also struck by the ‘state-of-emergency’ level chaos and willful incoherence. And, I agree, instead of working against my engagement and enjoyment, I didn’t feel any distracting pressure to put the pieces together. Instead, the frenzy of violent and violated voices and bodies weirdly (coherently?) evoked the blur of agency and complicity at the epicenter of the piece. Toward the end, Kate Benson as the ineffectual group therapist says something about “empathic failure” and from that point I began to see the play as an extreme performance of the failures to recognize another’s suffering, and even more interestingly, perhaps, the opposite problem of what utter empathic “success” — the fantasy of fully inhabiting an other — might look like. Another related word that came to my (new mom in this world) mind was reproduction. Upon the backdrop of a mauled son and a mute, mourning mother, the play asks a few times about wanting kids, and what we want for our kids. What right, and what responsibility do we have to bring kids into this twisted world where no one is pure, neighbors are “nabbers,” no one gets away with anything, violence begets violence, and there’s no release or imagined hope? The play’s last words, again from Benson as therapist are “ok/ that’s our time.” Time’s up, stop your venting, submit to insurance, and see you next week. It seems that we just start again in a new day with a new set of tigers, losses, repercussions, repeat. And, yet, given all this, I don’t know about you, but I laughed out loud…

DO: I laughed a few times, and I don’t laugh much at stuff.  I was really into the performances in general, but I specifically remember laughing at Hannah Kallenbach’s ‘girl with veil’ repose and subsequent characterization.  Also, and I think it may have varied from night to night so I’m curious to find out if this happened on your night as well, at some point during the protracted scene with Kate Benson as news reporter flinging page after page of television show transcript over her shoulder after having burned through it, the text that was being projected on the back wall (and constantly live-edited as the scene went along) typed out something along the lines of ‘Maybe this is more about tone, you guys,’ and then skipped to the bottom line, deleted whatever was there already, and typed ‘As opposed to the form.’  

Which was funny.  And, true?  The tone was probably the most consistent through-line – it was attitude-heavy.  I picked up a distinct sense of heavy sarcasm that somehow never skewed into irony.  It was ‘hip,’ but again, not in a bad way.  While I occasionally took minor issue with a tendency to use volume in place of drama to build up a sense of intensity within a scene (I’m never big on screaming, but I’m also getting old), I thought that the overall tone encouraged us to laugh when we wanted, to tune out for awhile if we felt like it.  It was both in your face and generous at the same time.  How is that even possible?!  

What parts did you find yourself laughing at?

Photo by Lee Weller

Photo by Lee Weller

JC: Oh, several parts: Hannah Kallenbach, pregnant, in a heap of tulle remarking that “John Stamos never ages,” Brendan Titley’s (big guy in a pink slip) disclosure to the cookie-selling girl scouts of his mother’s absurd abuses (trapping him in a refrigerator and turning him into a…spider?), Hannah Heller, a kind of demented Mallory of “Family Ties,” as the mother who sedates her baby and seriously ponders the difference between land and range rovers, Kate Benson’s “let’s finger breathe” response to the crazy therapy circle. And then there was the giant tooth that bopped onto stage? So, yeah, there were lots of necessary opportunities to “break” from the darker, serious, scream-y stuff.

In contrast to the funnier moments, I also (at least initially) felt implicated (and a bit nervous that I might have to participate somehow) when I walked into the theater right by the three actors visibly seated in the wings and seeming to stare us down. Did you feel that at all? And it makes me wonder more about this dynamic of tuning in and out, especially since the show is so much about blurring blame, victimhood, and the reverberations from acts of institutional, existential (isn’t “death” a character later in the show?), animal, familial, racial, and sexual violence. Tuning out, whether it’s during the heady onslaught of the performance, or to the news of another’s suffering, seems to carry certain weight in this context.   

As far as the simultaneous live typing during the scene with Kate Benson as Nancy Grace’s replacement – I was really into it. But, I can’t remember if that same line about tone versus form came up when I saw it. There were definitely other cool morphs of terms and plays with meaning. For me, it was another instance of the doubling, layering, and overlapping of voices that occurred throughout. And the ways this might connect to the slipperiness across the divides of violator/victim and a claustrophobic sense of complicity.

There were also a few particular moments when I was deeply disturbed, entirely absorbed. You?

DO: I had forgotten about the tooth.  Wow.  Yeah, that entire full-body tooth costume that had, what, an entire two minutes of stage time?  Strangeness abounds in this universe.

In response to the question regarding the active presence of actors-in-wings at entrance, I would say that, yes, there did seem to be a sense of ‘being challenged,’ in more ways than one.  I was being challenged by the material (at times cryptic – e.g, tooth on stage – and other times antagonistically chaotic), and to some extent being challenged in order to see if I would tune out.  In particular, the Kate Benson as Nancy Grace’s replacement scene seemed constructed to go on for so long that I (as audience member) would either be forced to tune out for awhile or at the very least, recalibrate the way I was watching. Which made sense structurally, because what followed that scene was much less narratively direct, branching out in seemingly every direction at once, on the themes that you’ve already brought up (motherhood, violence, suffering, therapy).  

Disturbing bits – beyond the larger themes at play and in play, which are entirely disturbing – for me, that scene with Hannah Kallenbach at the back of the room, drawing something on the wall, the physical activity of which turns inward on her and she starts to scream hysterically…  we don’t really know why.  The scene in which a lot of things are happening at once, mostly given voice via microphone; on one side of the stage, an act of sexual violence seems to be playing itself out, low-key, just through voices and mostly still actors, and on the other side of the stage, the about-to-be-dead-or-maybe-already-dead kid is telling the tiger ‘who he is’?  (Was that the same moment?  I don’t have a script.)  Oh, and the trumpet!  The off-key blaring of trumpet at ‘girl who is tiger’ in the mezzanine, definitely disturbing, impossible to tune out, even if you wanted to.

Especially disturbing or rapt moments on your part?  

JC: I like how you put the way the show tries to push us out — especially in that long evocation of the 24-7 drone of senseless media. Or, demands that we cultivate a kind of seeing that can take in the cacophony. Or can we?

Those two deeply disturbing moments stuck with me, too: the disembodied, sonic rape scene with Hannah Kallenbach that happened concurrently, I think, with the tiger attack. Her initial “don’t stop” ending with a prolonged rhythmic repeat of “no stop no stop no stop” brought to mind Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) and recent conversations over consent and sexual assault. And then later, she’s pregnant in a mental institution, right? Are we meant to read that chronologically? And what are we supposed to make of the show’s elision of racial and sexual violence? In the latter Girl, Interrupted moment, Kallenbach ranges from insanely singing, lashing out, and randomly drawing, while relaying a story about her dad doing something awful to her mother in front of her. Both moments incited empathy in me, something that the performance, for the most part, eschewed.

Since we started this exchange, a song from the show’s preset keeps popping into my head – Robyn’s poppy anthem about watching an ex-lover hook up with someone else, “Dancing on My Own.” Maybe it’s just catchy, but I think there’s something about the song itself, and a blue-wigged Kallenbach dancing — in oblivious isolation to everything around her — that the show stages itself against. The play’s chaotic incoherence insists upon an entrenched complicity in a grotesque world filled with opportunities to violate and be violated. And yet, sometimes we have to look away. Speaking of which – trumpet? What trumpet?

DO: There was a trumpet!  Or am I making this up?  No, there was.  At some point, in the the early-to-middle part of the play, the kid who is mauled by the tiger suddenly has a trumpet, and the tiger (as played by Teri Madonna) is above him, in the balcony stage-left, and he blows the trumpet at her really loud.  It’s like a different kind of scream, in a section full of screams.  

Something that I’ve always liked about longer-form art criticism (that is to say, in opposition to the short review-in-the-Times variety) is that it has the capacity to prolong the remembering of a performance.  The performance happens, the audience is engaged, and then they go away and forget.  In a way, the writing allows for a re-engagement, a re-remembering of sorts.  Another hero of mine, the playwright Erik Ehn, said about endpoints, “Sometimes the play can end by starting to forget itself.”

Which is to say, I love how tiger tiger is so packed that engaging with it literally puts me in a constant state of remembering and forgetting.  Which is also generally how I watched the show in the moment.  And then you start wondering if parts even happened at all, you question your remembering.  Then it turns dreamlike.  And eventually, it’s forgotten again, just like last night’s news coverage, the kid and the tiger, the song that was in your head until one day it wasn’t.

See, trumpet! (Photo by Lee Wexler)

See, trumpet! (Photo by Lee Wexler)

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