The Wordy Worlds of Mac Wellman

Photo by Al Foote III

In Mac Wellman’s A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds (playing now through February 11th at New York Theater Workshop Next Door, tickets $30), the English language has been turned inside out and handed to creatures quite unlike ourselves. These individuals are alien folk, and their task is to describe the circumstances of their life (each lived on a unique and remote asteroid). Made up of a duo of fifty-minute monologues (the first performed by Timothy Siragusa, standing on a box, surrounded by musicians and glowing orange lights, clutching an old-fashioned microphone in silvered hands; the second by Anastasia Olowin, mostly seated, dressed in and back-grounded in white) with a short break in between, the evening resembles what one might imagine how a Moth Storytelling Hour might play out if it were held at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the title and central location of book two of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). One desires a window revealing alien starry skies and one of those industrial-blue colored cocktails in hand.

Then again, the blue cocktail might over-muddy the brain, which must be differently tuned in order to fully appreciate that which Wellman is after, including the contemplation of such queries as: How much of our reality is constructed by the way we describe our surroundings? How utterly alienating is it to have a physical landscape described to us using language that is indecipherable yet undeniably comprehensive and logical? This has always been Wellman’s game, one at which he excels at levels above most other scribblers of our time, capable of creating brain-explosion after explosion using words alone. Example: Walking telephone.

It it a joke? Not really. Yet, it’s funny. Why? Just because telephones don’t walk? Because walk is near-affiliated to the word ‘talk,’ which makes more sense when used in relation to a telephone? Because telephone itself is an old-fashioned worn-out word that we don’t use much anymore in relation to communication devices?

Although if I remember it correctly, I believe it’s actually in the plural – walking telephones. Which makes it all that much funnier, because you’re forced to imagine telephones walking in pairs, or waiting in lines. It creates an entire world of possibility, just by colliding two seemingly innocent words.

A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds is actually, originally, a work of fiction – a novel, published in 2008. This is also to say, it was originally intended to be read, not heard, resulting in a different sort of madness when occurring on the page rather than stage. Elena Araoz, the director, has taken it upon herself to raise these particular two stories into the realm of the performative, with remarkably positive results. The performances themselves are impeccable, spectacular; it’s only when noticing one of maybe two tiny verbal stumbles during the evening that one is reminded just how impossible this language is to make sense of, to speak, to perform – and so the performances themselves are a marvel, virtuosic, yet under-stated in the way they must be in order to allow room for the audience to participate in the world-building (again: “Walking Telephone” – the performer’s job is to speak it, your job is to imagine it.)

The addition of music and sound (there are four musicians arranged in support of the central performances – drums, piano, a horn or two, and a variety of other effects; a mic-ed fan blows ineffectively for the duration of the second monologue) gestures towards a jazz club or lounge act. The incongruity between the strangeness of the encompassing language and the familiarity of the scoring or ‘soundtracking’ the experience feels well-aligned with Wellman’s love of putting the incomprehensible next to the comfortable. Occasionally, the music becomes more pleasurable to experience than the actual words, at which point the audience might find themselves adrift – but this drift is only a temporary fugue state, because the monologues have been skillfully modulated to jolt us back into consciousness at key moments, ensuring that we’re not lost in space forever.

The revelation of the evening follows one home, invades our space for a time. Mac Wellman, pervasive space invader that he is, has worm-holed his way inside the madness and chaos of words themselves.  

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