On The Offending Gesture, or what means ‘work’?

Photo by Richard Termine

Photo by Richard Termine

Along with fellow playwright whisperers Paula Vogel and Eric Ehn, it’s difficult to overstate the amount of influence that Mac Wellman has had on the up-and-coming cohort of emerging playwrights, particularly those who are unafraid of labels like “experimental,” or the slightly less broad “non-linear.”  Mr. Wellman, who heads the playwriting program at Brooklyn College, has played a hand in the development of such notable writers as Young Jean Lee, Sibyl Kempson, Thomas Bradshaw, Tina Satter, Annie Baker, Eliza Bent, Ari Stess, and Clare Barron just to name a few.  These writers don’t have a ton in common – they feature wildly varying styles and dissimilar dramatic approaches; but one through-line that I think it’s fair to draw might be their commitment to allowing the energy of language and its act of creation to live within the play itself.  In a Wellman play as well as within the dramatic worlds of these selected writers, language is dynamic.  Sometimes it’s made up, sometimes it’s wrong, enigmatic, misspoken, poorly quoted, nonsensical, or just plain stupid – but it crackles from the electricity of having been placed in just such a way that it creates sparks but doesn’t blow the entire fuse.  

So, what’s so hard about that?  Just write some stuff down, call it a play, be done for the day, grab a drink by 4:30, drunk by 7, bed by 11, get up the next morning and repeat – everyone must want to be a playwright!  

Of course, it’s not that easy.  The construction of a play that depends on the energy of its language is delicate, painstaking work that does not always guarantee a positive result, even in the hands of master workers.  It’s a risky enterprise within an already-risky business, even for the most streamlined and commercial plays on Broadway (with the exception of the  roundly-panned China Doll with Al Pacino, which should demonstrate that even the totally incoherent can still make money – perhaps producers should look to downtown writers in the future).  And as I sat in a general state of wonder as I watched Mr. Wellman’s most recent offering, The Offending Gesture, playing in a co-production between the Tank and 3-Legged-Dog (apt!) at the Connelly Theater through January 23rd, I spent a good deal of my own energy trying to determine what exactly it was that made this play – which is a strange play – work so well.  

And – by the way – there’s a word, a small piece of language, that gets used a lot in the art-making business and doesn’t necessarily get examined very often – work.  What does it mean, to work?  I’ll offer the hypothesis that it is often the descriptor that is put forth when there’s no obvious alternative, yet the moment (or play, or dance, or projection, etc.) is functioning in the way that generates tension or dramatic energy.  I wanted to use the phrase ‘as intended,’ but that’s not always the case.  Some things tend to work better unintentionally, and that world is a distinctly Wellmanian one – generated from accidental and unintended workings, and then precisely honed into something with intellect and specific intent.  In this sense, the gesture of writing a play is engaging in the activity of capturing the unintended energies and wanderings of the mind, and then tending to them.  That which is overly planned and plotted out prior to its being written, however cleanly executed it might be, may appear listless onstage – devoid of the necessary energy of its creation (and creator).

Another way of examining the usage of the word ‘work’ might be through the following chemical analogy.  If it ‘works’, the liquid in the test tube changes in some way.  Add water to water, and the ripple might be kind of interesting, but nothing happens.  It doesn’t work.  However, add baking soda to vinegar and you’ve got yourself a volcano there, son!  And it should also be noted – especially via the volcano example – that just because it works doesn’t mean it’s good.  Sometimes, anyone can make a moment work.  But if you try stringing those moments together, one after the other, all in systemic working order, the chain reaction in play as well as the individual reactions, and build yourself a structure that works both internally and externally – and keeps working in a durational sense – and can be carried away, as an idea or new energy, in the minds of the audience post-performance?  That, I think, is what I generally mean when I state that a play ‘works,’ as a whole.

So how does The Offending Gesture work, and what might be borrowed on behalf of the copy-cats (or dogs) like myself, this new school of language playwrights?  Its conditions and inner workings are as follows:  a Finnish dog named Jackie has learned to perform the Nazi salute on command, and the Germans have seen a picture of it and have become upset by the implications (although Hitler, in this play referred to Noble Wolf, seems less upset that a dog in Finland can do the salute and more upset that his own German Shepherd – named Blondi – cannot seem to perform the salute herself). The resulting tensions between the two nations force the two dogs to come up with a plan in order to save Jackie’s owner and Finland.  The dogs, being dogs (and this is a central question & point of the play, i.e., what is ‘dog,’ and what is ‘human,’ – particularly in relation to who is doing what gesture at any given point of time and more pointedly, why), do not have a robust geopolitical understanding and decide that the best outcome would be for Germany to invade Iraq instead, due to Noble Wolf’s dislike of Winston Churchill (who created Iraq) and also in some part due to their misunderstanding that leads them to believe that Iraq is something of a falling-apart waffle (based on its shape).  There are also singing Mooncats, who live on the moon and strut and occasionally offer narrative wisdoms and footnotes on the action via song.  

Structurally then, the play follows (albeit, fitfully) the basic comic premise in which a bad idea (invade Finland due to a dog’s version of a salute) leads to a series of worse ideas (invade Iraq instead, say.)  Loaded with the requisite incongruities, contradictions, and malapropisms galore (my favorite is often used in the stage directions, in which PAWS is offered in place of PAUSE, and vice versa), the director Meghan Finn has intriguingly and wisely pushed the physical and gestural performances to a point of exaggeration but not quite into the land of caricature.  I felt, at times, that I was watching a modernized commedia performance, as there is a certain extravagance of emotion (an uncommon amount for your typical downtown theater performance) pouring forth from the performers, particularly from the performance of Layla Khoshnoudi, who takes what could have been played as a stock character (Hitler as fool) and so fully embodies it that she becomes in essence a demonstration of Wellman’s enigmatic language itself – each contradiction and failure to communicate on Noble Wolf’s part pushes through and past the surface comedy to reveal that which always must lie within great comedy – the truth of the tragedy underneath.  

The music, composed by Alaina Ferris, offers contradiction to this otherwise over-the-top world – it is, instead, otherworldly, beautiful, sometimes reminiscent at least in its function (if not the actual sound of it) of Benoit Charest’s work in the animated film The Triplets of Belleville.  It immerses us in a strange universe, and gives a welcome reprieve from the quibblings of dogs and humans alike.  The performance of the dogs (Kristine Haruna Lee as Jackie, Abby Rosebrock as Blondi) is thankfully restrained and a tiny bit understated in a good way.  After all, Wellman offers the following note in the program:  ‘But the dogs however sweet and loveable are not much when it comes to abstract thinking – their logic is sincere but also very doggish.’  The costumes, by Emily Blumenauer, portray a similar restraint in that the dogs are not dressed ‘as dogs,’ nor are the mooncats dressed as cats.  The set (designed by Christopher & Justin Swader), sound design (Eric Sluyter), and lighting (designed by Brian Aldous) all feel appropriately tuned to the universe.

As Wellman circles back to end the play in a bittersweet philosophical pickle of identity and existentialism, I’ll do the same here.  What makes a Mac Wellman play play?  Perhaps it’s best understood as an abstract riddle, wrapped outwardly in puns, but revealing, at its core, a multiplicity of possible solutions, each with a kernel of truth to them.  Another way of putting it – a less satisfying version of a Mac Wellman-like play would be riddled but unsolvable, each attempted solution leading to more riddle and ultimately a dead end.  The Offending Gesture offers us a specifically rendered interpretation and arrangement of a world, and leaves the choice up to us.  We solve for loneliness.  Solve for dogginess. Solve for geopolitical madness.  Solve for yowling at the moon.

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