LongYarn at The Bushwick Starr
It is two weeks and one day before the world premiere of Banana Bag & Bodice’s LongYarn. The town of Beacon, NY is teetering on the edge of freezing. Jessica Jelliffe and Jason Craig, who together lead and are the only two permanent members of the alliterative theater troupe, have recently moved to Beacon after years of being based in Brooklyn. The town is about an hour and a half from the city, and the couple’s house, baby blue and close to the main road, sits across from Beacon High School. Nobody is on the sidewalk. The town is quiet.
When I arrive, Jelliffe has just gotten off of the phone with a potential new stage manager—the one they had lined up recently dropped out of the show because of a death in the family. Even up here, the pressure of making theater is felt in full-force. It has been three years since their last show. This is their first new show since their son, Charlie, was born, and since the couple moved to Beacon. Craig, who wrote the play, has taken on one of the three acting roles somewhat last-minute. Never a dull moment.
I exchange a handshake with Craig, and in minutes the three of us are drinking Irish Tea in Jelliffe and Craig’s cozy family kitchen, talking about LongYarn. Charlie has just finished a PB&J, no crusts. “This has been a very, very hard show to build, mainly because we have a kid now,” says Jelliffe, “Having a kid, living away from Brooklyn…That’s informing the process in its own way. Which, you know, is frustrating but very fascinating and informative.”
The idea of parenthood, specifically of motherhood, is at the core of LongYarn. It becomes clear rather quickly that, for all the frustrating detachment Jelliffe and Craig have felt as upstate New Yorkers, LongYarn could not have existed at any previous point in their lives. “We all have this shit that we need to wade through, and in that wading through you can find some human joy and fun,” says Craig, soft-spoken but talkative, “That’s sort of what all of our shows tackle…They usually have a certain amount of humor, but that humor comes from the hardship.”
LongYarn revolves around “Mother” (played by Jelliffe), a hundred-year-old Irish woman. She is a single mother of two, which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that both Craig and Jelliffe were themselves brought up by single mothers. The initial spark, says Craig, came from the story of Peig Sayers, an almost-mythical Irish storyteller whose life stories, collected in her autobiography Peig, are a staple in the canon of Irish folklore. Craig, who grew up in Ireland and read the book as part of his schooling, describes Sayers as “The most hated woman in Ireland.” He speaks to a nationally-felt sense of resentment from generations of children made to read her stories. LongYarn’s “Mother” takes Sayers’s folkloric storytelling and runs with it. A large part of the show sees Jelliffe’s character telling the audience bizarre tales from her life, which range from her early years being raised by cattle to the experience of ripping out a grown man’s eyes during a professional wrestling match. A departure from Peig’s Irish folktales, certainly. Jelliffe compares it to telling a campfire story.
The second element of the show comes in the form of two brothers, Lumus (Craig) and Penryn (frequent Banana Bag & Bodice collaborator Peter Blomquist). They are the sons of Mother, and occupy a world of their own. For the most part, they do not directly interact with Mother. Says Jelliffe: “Our director, Ellie Hayman, likes to describe it as a Beckett play (the Mother) meets a Sam Shepard play (the Brothers)…or has an explosion with a Sam Shepard play.”
On stage, a separation between the Brothers and the Mother takes the form of the two men having their own set downstage. Together, the Brothers occupy a living room space, complete with a couch (“This is my island couch!” says Lumus). Their sibling relationship, vaguely reminiscent of that in Shepard’s True West, is turbulent (Craig describes it as a “fraternal sparring match”). However, both men, stuck taking care of their elderly mother in their childhood home, seem to revel in the clashing of their own personalities. Upstage, apart, the Mother spins tales for the audience from atop a mound of tan cloth; her fleshy throne. A grand Renaissance dress made of saggy breasts.
“I don’t know if a lot of writers feel this way,” says Craig, “But I don’t feel like I’m necessarily responsible for the writing. I think it just comes out and I don’t necessarily have any control over that…I don’t have outlines.” Craig’s writing is marked by a distinctly Irish penchant for dark humor, which Craig sees as Banana Bag & Bodice’s “driving aesthetic.” “If we’re not able to laugh at ourselves onstage then there’s not much point.” Just as he says this, a toy building-block tower that Charlie and Jelliffe have been building collapses, followed by shrieks of anguish from Charlie. “See, you gotta laugh about it,” Craig says as Jelliffe smiles and starts building the tower back up, “That tower was gonna fall.”
The dark humor serves as the jumping-off point for Banana Bag & Bodice’s larger goal to, as they describe it, “Celebrate the inspiring awkwardness of being human.” In the past, this fascination with the clumsy side of humanity has taken many different forms. Banana Bag & Bodice’s last show, Space//Space put two siblings (at first two brothers, before one becomes a woman) side-by-side in a spaceship that has been sent deep into space to be discovered by artificial life. The Rise & Fall of the Rising Fallen saw the collective transformed into a punk band. Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is a retelling of the classic English story, a similarly over-read and analyzed text to Peig. Craig often finds inspiration in famous stories he doesn’t like: “It starts out with an irreverence for bodies of text…It’s a want of an appreciation for something I don’t quite know.”
The creative team behind LongYarn reunites some past Banana Bag & Bodice collaborators, including Blomquist, Sound Designer Dave Malloy (Ghost Quartet, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), and Dramaturgical Aide Rachel Chavkin (The TEAM). The Bushwick Starr is not new territory for Craig and Jelliffe, either. An early showing of Space//Space took place there, and the couple had a summer residency last year to work on LongYarn. But for Banana Bag & Bodice, balancing making art with raising a family has proven to be the greatest challenge of all. “We’re trying to juggle a lot of milkshakes right now” says Craig. Jelliffe laughs (“Did you just say ‘juggling milkshakes?’”) before admitting: “It would’ve been easier if we didn’t live in Beacon.” Craig adds, lightly, half-serious: “And if we didn’t have a kid.”
The exact manner and extent to which that informs the final product remains to be seen, but at a rehearsal at The Bushwick Starr a week later, the struggle seems to have melted away. Craig and Jelliffe, along with their son Charlie, have relocated their lives to a loft above The Bushwick Starr for the extent of LongYarn’s run. In the performance space itself, there is no sign of strain. The walls have been painted black and the windows have been covered. The atmosphere is focused and controlled, with all the humor, buzz, and nervous pressure one expects from a rehearsal room. Craig and Jelliffe are in their element. “You comfortable up there, Jess?” Director Elena Heyman asks Jelliffe, who is seated at the top of the Mother’s fleshy mound. Jelliffe does a happy little dance. She’s comfortable.