Marie and Bruce, forty years later

Photo by Knud Adams

In Wallace Shawn’s 1978 play Marie and Bruce, an angry female (Marie) professes her intense, profound hatred of her husband (Bruce) in one of the most rousingly profane opening monologues to a play you’ll ever see. Today, she promises the audience, she will leave him. This, at last, will be the day. Bruce, seeming none the wiser, goes about his business preparing coffee under duress, putting on the wrong pair of pants, a sad little man, unaware of Marie’s intentions. (Is she like this every day?) As the play widens its lens from tight literary direct-address monologging to a sprawling Altmanesque party scene, and then later, an uncomfortable restaurant setting, it becomes clear that yes, perhaps this is just a day in the life of these two volatile beings, and concludes much as it began, with Marie & Bruce back in bed. Maybe she’ll leave him tomorrow. 

Given that the play was written forty years ago, there’s been plenty of discussion and writing about the content itself, so I’ll leave it mostly alone. Uncomfortable and problematic have both been used as headline descriptors. The language of the play, the utterances and profanities and reflections upon the physical body, feel surprisingly contemporary, a credit I suppose to their specificity and violence. Its blend of naturalism and surrealism also feel pretty up-to-date; a rare but welcome combination of language and experimentation with form that allows both to live within (and dramatically fill up) the stage effectively.

So Marie and Bruce – as plays that have been done again and again often are – is solidly what it is. But that alone wouldn’t necessarily provide ample justification to revisit it in 2018, which brings us to the excellent production now running at JACK through July 28th. The remounting seems to have been driven primarily by musician Theda Hammel, who plays Marie as well the piano, and provides the sound design. In an accompanying interview that comes with the program, she says that she’s been interested in the play for more than ten years, and one certainly gets a sense from the ferocity and focus she exhibits during the performance that she’s been readying herself for this role for awhile. Opposite her, playing Bruce (and also the set designer), is Gordon Landenberger, appropriately passive-aggressive, strangely likable despite the ugly material. Directed by Knud Adams, the production moves confidently through its paces and makes clever use of the various nooks and crannies of the theater itself. Matt Barats, Peter Mills Weiss, Eudora Peterson, Lorelei Ramirez, and Alexandra Tatarsky make up the remainder of the cast and provide a refreshingly understated vibe during the long party scene. Kate McGee’s lights are used with intelligent effect; in particular, doing a nice job of highlighting the transitions between naturalism and direct-address monologging. 

Also of significance: Theda Hammel is a trans actress. In a play that is very much interested in bodies, with the state of the vessels of its characters often taking the place of more traditional emotional dramaturgy, this creates a welcome new layer of complexity, in that the audience’s awareness of the history of this particular body in front of us versus that which the playwright assumed (i.e., the play was not written about the trans experience) allows for both distance and closeness at the same time – Hammel draws us in to her experience, while granting us a bit of separation from the material itself (which is unrelentingly bleak, flirting with misogyny, although its view of the male specimen isn’t without contempt either).

To offer up one caveat of critique, it feels like there is a confusing moment near the end of the play (roughly 80 minutes long) wherein Marie presumably makes a decision (it certainly appears that the power is in her hands, at least in this production), and I’m not sure if it’s missing from the play entirely, or just happened to get overwhelmed the evening I was in attendance. Marie has spent the entire arc of the play preparing to tell Bruce she’s leaving, and finally she breaks the news. He doesn’t appear to believe her, and eventually counters with an unconvincing, “I mean, don’t you know that I love you, darling?”  She retorts that he doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and furthermore he’s not even a living person, and that he’s dead to her, he is only meat.

However! The inciting incident of this whole play, if there is one, was Marie’s decision way back at the beginning to throw out his favorite antique typewriter because it made too much noise. This reportedly brought Bruce to tears (not terribly man-like) which may have contributed to Marie’s decision to leave him (which has been compounded and complicated throughout the play by Bruce’s either acting gratifyingly masculine, like at the party where he talks the talk, walks the walk, sniffs out the other females, or while at dinner, when he fails to stand up to a pair of men discussing scatology near their table). So, facing Marie’s abandonment, Bruce mentions that he’s bought a new typewriter. When asked if he’ll miss the old one, he reflects, and answers, No. Then the play pivots, loops – as though somehow this replaceability of object triggers something in Marie – is she replaceable too? Is it some evidence of Bruce’s self-improvement? Whatever it is, it seems like Marie makes some decision in the moment that the audience is not privy to, and that decision allows the play to have an ending (of sorts). Hammel plays the last few minutes with a little more softness, a tinge of regret. Still, there’s strangeness to it – we (if we’re Bruce) are, at the very end, let off the hook and we’re not sure why. Or, if we’re watching as Marie, we had him in our sights, and we just let him go.

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