Target Margin’s “Drunken With What” Tackles O’Neill’s Take On Greek Drama

Satya Bhabha, Eunice Wong, and Stephanie Weeks in Drunken With What. Photo by Gaia Squarci.

Satya Bhabha, Eunice Wong, and Stephanie Weeks in Drunken With What. Photo by Gaia Squarci.

Watching Target Margin’s Drunken With What at Abrons last month (it closed Feb. 27), I found myself wondering, idly, “My God, what’s Eugene O’Neill’s deal?”

It takes something to make Greek drama even darker than the original, but that’s exactly what O’Neill did with Mourning Becomes Electra, a take on the Oresteia cycle that was intended for a single evening performance. Herskovits and Target Margin, the ambitious and inquisitive company he’s helmed for a couple decades, pared down O’Neill’s text, cutting characters down to a handful performed by a trio of artists, and running just shy of two hours (which still felt long, to be honest).

I don’t like everything Herskovits does, but he’s one of the theater artists in New York whose work intrigues me most—I have immense respect for the laborious process he’s constructed for his theatrical investigations—and when he’s on, he’s on. His chamber version of The Tempest in 2011 was hands down one of the top two or three Shakespeare performances I’ve seen, and the fact that it was my personal favorite play only added to the joy.

To be clear, I haven’t had a chance to see everything Target Margin does, particularly in the research phases of their investigations. Herskovits has a wide-ranging mind and has achieved enough stability with his company for it to do the sort of public research many artists can only dream of. Which is another way of saying, they present a lot of work, both Herskovits’s own as well as artists invited to take part in the Target Margin Labs, which pair other generative artists with Herskovits’s own explorations of the same material. In 2012-14 it was Yiddish theater, which consisted of two Target Margin productions, The (*) Inn at Abrons in March 2013 (which I quite liked) and Uriel Acosta at the Chocolate Factory in April 2014 (which I cared for less). During that time, Target Margin arranged for two lab series, first in 2012 and then through 2013 and ’14, featuring over a dozen artists, working with some of the same historical material. The labs—and the work of the artists taking part—are as much to create an opportunity for former and current (and maybe future) collaborators of Target Margin as they are to further Herskovits’s own investigations into the material, challenging his own perspective as a creative artist by giving others a chance to do what he may choose not to.

Target Margin followed up Yiddish theater with a season exploring Gertrude Stein, and now we’re in Eugene O’Neill territory. True to his investigative process, Drunken With What is neither a work-in-progress nor a final product, exactly; it’s a self-conscious first draft of a performance of Mourning Becomes Electra, to be followed up by a Lab take on Iceman Cometh in June, before Herskovits himself returns to O’Neill later in the year.

Entering the playhouse at Abrons, I initially found myself wondering why the audience was so constrained. Not only were most of the seats roped off, but we were specifically seated in the back of the orchestra section, under the balcony, with a wide expanse of empty seats in front of us. It was only once the performance began that I realized why.

One of the most interesting devices I’ve seen Herskovits employ was aerial microphones—listening devices that a technician could point at a performer, like a sound sniper, to amplify extremely quiet speech from a distance. Herskovits used this device in his production of The (*) Inn, and it quite provoked me. In part, the larger investigation explored the ways in which the Yiddish theater was embracing forms of Modernism very early on, and Herskovits often had his actors employ a plastic, address-to-the-audience style. But the aerial mic permitted for a radical shift in performance style to take place on the drop of a hat. Performers could shift from a pseudo-Brechtian mode to something intensely quiet, even cinematic, for moments of intense emotional intimacy. By employing the mic, the volume drop in the performer’s voice was mitigated, allowing for the sort of quiet performance that’s normally precluded onstage by the sheer size of a theater.

In Drunken With What, Herskovits employs a similar tactic, but this time with small microphones attached to the actors’ heads. The effect is similar—allowing the actors to stop projecting and go “small” in a dramatic way without losing audibility—and the sheer distance of the audience from the performers seemed intended (in part at least) to amplify the effect. So far away from the performer, when they went small, you really can’t hear their actual voice at all, and were left exclusively with the PA amplification. As such, it became almost a sort of architectural study, with the direction of the sound of the voice shifting radically between the actor onstage to the speakers in the theater.

The way in which Target Margin uses the device in Drunken With What is very different from The (*) Inn, however. Mourning Becomes Electra is one of the most sophisticated examples of Expressionism in American theater, written and produced nearly a decade after Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine introduced the language of Expressionism into mainstream American drama. O’Neill’s baroque language and extended monologues and soliloquys permit for each of the main characters in the drama to effectively “narrate themselves” into existence, and indeed, the play takes on a certain dream-like quality in how it demands the characters each be subjected to the whims of another for the action to proceed.

The plot, as mentioned, is a take on the Oresteia, set in the wake of the American Civil War. Pared down efficiently as Target Margin has done, the plot is fairly easy to summarize. The setting is the home of a wealthy New England family named Mannon. Ezra, the head of the house, is a general fighting for the Union under Ulysses Grant as the play begins. His wife Christine, who hates him, has carried on an affair with a sea captain named Brant with whom she intends to elope. Ezra and Christine have two children, Orin (wounded in the war) and Lavinia. Christine hates her daughter and has an almost incestuous infatuation with her son. With Ezra set to return, Christine conspires with Brant to murder Ezra and flee together. Coincidentally, Brant is Ezra’s cousin; Brant’s father was exiled from the household for marrying out of class, and Brant is driven by a desire for revenge against the Mannons who left them penniless and destitute. Lavinia is also in love with Brant, but having learned of her mother’s plot, she intends to turn her brother against them. Christine successfully murders Ezra, Orin is convinced by Lavinia to murder Brant, Lavinia convinces Christine to kill herself, and then in an odd twist, Orin and Lavinia flee to the South Seas in a move that itself almost feels incestuous until she convinces Orin to kill himself, too.

Bizarrely, no one really ever does anything on purpose. Orin kills both Brant and himself because Lavinia told him to. Which she also does to Christine, who only managed to kill Ezra in the first place through a bizarre plot to fuck him to death while he’s severely ill. Even more bizarrely, it’s not the fucking that kills him; rather, it’s him realizing why she’s doing it, which cause him to suffer a heart attack, which also doesn’t kill him but which gives her the chance to poison him. Notwithstanding the fact it’s a hail mary pass when the original plan flops, that’s the most direct decision any character actually makes of their own accord in the play. And even there, Christine’s being prodded on by Brant in the background.

In production, the microphone device is only one of several used to permit for individual performers to come to dominate the entire space of the stage, weaving their own stories into being as an expression of an internal which essentially serves to represent the other characters as marionettes whose agency is sublimated to that of the primary authorial voice. O’Neill’s accomplishment in Mourning Becomes Electra is creating a dynamism in which the Expressionistic techniques permit for each main character to externalize their psychological state, rather than a more conventional piece (like The Adding Machine) in which the drama is essentially limited to one primary characters.

The acting Herskovits employs is usually presentational, and includes bits of butoh and other highly formalized approaches that serve to render certain characters as sorts of objects onstage, controlled by the voice narrating a particular moment. In Herskovits’s hands, O’Neill’s verbose language (Mourning Becomes Electra, performed in full, runs around six or so hours) thus takes on the quality of a Beckett monologue, not the voice of a character inhabited onstage, but an incantation of identity forcing itself into being within the space and flickering away as the voice dies, with the performer reduced to a mere host for the words.

As a series of effects, it makes for compelling watching. I recall many years ago Pig Iron’s Dan Rothenberg told me that much of that company’s work came from the fact they were all “acting state nerds,” who loved figuring out new ways to just be on stage. The same could surely be said of Herskovits. But it’s still not enough to make Drunken With What truly satisfactory viewing.

Mainly the problem comes from O’Neill’s original text, which presents thematic and even political issues that aren’t really addressed by Target Margin’s approach. As much as O’Neill’s play is Expressionistic, it uses those aesthetic styles to realize what’s essentially a family psychodrama relying on some fairly gross pop psychology. The play is based on the Oresteia, after all. While the The Eumenides (the final play in the cycle) does, in effect, sanction the right to seek revenge, it nevertheless does so through what’s essentially a legal debate, in which Orestes’ actions are bound to a greater social good, and indeed the establishment of some body of law capable of discerning whether an action constitutes a crime.

This is where O’Neill goes really dark. He does the complete opposite. In the play, he casts the social impact of the American Civil War as a moralistic family psychodrama. The Oresteia ends with acquittal in a binding judgment; Mourning Becomes Electra ends in a state of guilt, with Lavinia consigning herself to a living death by entombing herself in her home. There’s a fairly straightforward reading of O’Neill’s play that holds that the moral is that when a family turns on itself, it destroys itself, creating wounds that won’t heal.

All of which is, I daresay, politically fraught for a play about the Civil War. As provocative as Herskovits’s staging is, it nevertheless wound up feeling like an exercise in a style without fully grappling with the content of the text.

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