On the First Person Narrator & ABYSS – a response
In Abyss, a new play written and translated (from German) by Maria Milisavljevic and presented by The Play Company through Dec. 6th at Theaterlab, after only four short lines of dialogue the primary character faces the audience and speaks ‘to us.’ Only it’s not directly to us, it’s that kind of first-person-narrator presentational address, her eyes not focussed on any one audience member but fixed just over our heads. It is, in structural terms, live voice-over. In textual terms, it’s poetic, a little heightened; out of a book, maybe, reminiscent at least to me of Jonathan Safran Foer’s prose in his 2002 novel Everything is Illuminated. With regards to propelling narrative, it allows the play to skip forward and sideways but is also heavily reliant on this mode of directly communicated information to the audience (as in, she can tell us what’s happening). It is, most of all, a cinematic device, a verbal close-up into the interior mind.
We all have our individual tastes as theater-goers. There are certain things that I just don’t respond to positively, and as it turns out, this type of at-us-not-to-us direct-address has consistently been one of them. So what do you do, at top of play, when the main character turns to the general you and starts talking and keeps talking and throughout the 100 minute running time only engages directly in scenes with the other characters for, I don’t know, maybe 15 minutes in total? If you’re me, you fight your initial resistance to the deployment of the device in question until you’re able to submerge it – the rankle of it never completely gone but in the background, at least – and try to let it just be what it is. Or, as the main character and narrator, who is referred to by the script as “I” says, “…we swim to the edge of the reef, out, where the sun sinks into the sea, and stare down into the deep, before us the abyss.”
Which is, of course, imagery that would be difficult to infuse into a theater piece other than by some means of direct address. And so I too stare – into the narration, into my own abyss, looking for something to hold onto.
Secret admission – I actually kind of like having a narrator. I’ve seen it work quite well, particularly in less linear work, and ideally when the action of the performance is separate from the textual component. But in the majority of the times I’ve seen it work, the narrator is in a third-person position, commenting and/or creating a counterpoint for some other character. Specifically, I think of the work done by director Mariano Pensotti, described as ‘filmic drama.’ In both The Past is a Grotesque Animal, and the more recent Cineastas, which both played at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival, live voice-over is a huge component, the driving force of the narrative. But it’s never told in the first-person, which allows for dual action and text. In fact, it frees up the performer who is being given the voiceover as it allows them the ability to just ‘be’ in close-up, or to dance, or even to stand staring out into space while we hear someone (onstage also, but elsewhere) describe what’s going on either inside their head, microcosmic, or in the vast universe surrounding them, macrocosmic. What’s vital in this arrangement is the degree of space that exists between the text (third-person) and action (first-person). This is the space that we, as an audience, are able to inhabit. It gives us somewhere to be, and allows for the minute differences between what’s being said and what’s being enacted to create dramatic tension, even conflict.
So what is it about this particular usage, this first-person-actor and narrator device, that troubles my watching so much? I think, on the surface, it comes off as dramatically flat. A performer who is simultaneously being asked to describe, or tell, what’s going on while also embodying the same moment is being asked to be in two spaces at once. The actor playing ‘I’ (Flora Diaz) is clearly up for the challenge, and achieves a decent amount of success finding a balance between the poetic interior and the semi-noir exterior of the play’s texture and world. But it’s still hard for me – I don’t want to be told, “I smile” by the person who is supposed to be smiling. To the credit of the director (Maria Mileaf), ‘I’ doesn’t actually smile. She just says, “I smile.” So there is an interesting wrinkle between the space of telling and the space of doing, a disconnect; and that’s where I find myself most engaged with the performance – during the moments in which it intermittently comes up for air, breaching its narration and finding a different way of enacting itself.
The play itself opens in a state of emergency; a roommate, Karla, has gone missing, and so the three characters, ‘I’, ‘She,’ and ‘He,’ undergo a strange quest to uncover the truth of her disappearance. While ‘I’ is the primary character who narrates, there are also televisions throughout the space that declare the passing days between disappearance and ‘now.’ Three days. Five days. Two weeks, etc. Additionally, ‘She,’ who is named Sophia except when she plays a number of supplementary characters as needed, intermittently turns on a light above her which allows her to do her own version of direct-address, in which she details how to kill, skin, and cook a rabbit. I’m never quite sure how this works with the rest of the play, but it’s grisly and interesting counterpoint material and generally utilized as a narrative pivot, which allows the play to hop forward. There is also a new boyfriend, Jan, and the other roommate, Vlado, both played excellently by Carter Hudson, named only in the program as ‘He.’ As played by the same actor, the shifts between Jan and Vlado are delineated mostly by the addition or subtraction of a black knit hat, and are underlined by ‘I’s narrative ability to name them for us when they’re in a scene with her. Vlado was dating the missing girl, Karla, but as the play unfolds we are privy to a growing intimate engagement between Vlado and ‘I’ – they’re both of Serbian descent and have both experienced pain (described textually as ‘the fires’) before. This current trauma of searching for the missing girlfriend brings them into close and dangerous proximity, much to the disgust of Sophia and in spite of Jan’s occasional attempts to remain in the picture. This evolving relationship between Vlado and ‘I’ slowly shifts itself into the heart of the play, and leaves us at a rather unsettled conclusion in which Karla’s disappearance is solved (generally) although not entirely explained, except (maybe) to Vlado, who is privy to some vital information that we – and apparently ‘I’ – are not.
In its strongest moments, Abyss achieves a deeply poetical entrancement, the narrative components helping to create a fullness of place (particularly during a venture into the Russian Quarter). How you experience it ultimately comes down to how you feel about the device, but by giving in to it and allowing myself to be submerged, I eventually found my way to something richer and more complex than what I would have expected from its surface, even if I won’t be revising my overall feelings on first-person narrators as a result.