Past Internetting: On MADONNA col BAMBINO

Photo by Delaine Dacko

MADONNA col BAMBINO opens in stillness. Two women stand on stage, facing us. “Christine,” the younger says. A correction. “What?” “It’s Christine,” she clarifies – spelled with a Ch, not a K. “It sounded like you were thinking of it with a K.” The delicacy of the distinction – you can hear the hardness at the back of the throat with K, the slight aspiration with Ch – figures the play, I think. It listens for notes of the heart so muted we don’t always hear them.  Stillness returns, too, and the whole piece – written by Sarah Einspanier, with music by Deepali Gupta, directed by and developed with Caitlin Sullivan – hovers and shifts with the lightness of that little touch of soft palate at the back of the throat.

The situation, and the arrangement of characters, is simple and architectural. This is a world where children take on surrogate mothers when their own mothers disappoint or frustrate them. Mothers, it seems, can adopt adult surrogate children when their adult biological children choose to replace them. The two women who open the play are Christine (Narea Kang) and her new surrogate mother, Merry (Beth Griffith). Later in the play we’ll meet Christine’s biological mother, Mary (Ching Valdes-Aran), and Mary’s new surrogate daughter, Kristine ((rebeca) Rad).

The only other character, Martha (Nyahalé Allie), is Christine’s friend (“chosen family”). Martha is pregnant and disrupts the symmetry of the (Ch/K)ristines and the M(a/er)rys. Martha is almost a mother; not quite. What kind of mother will she be? What kind of child will her child be? Christine, too, wonders what she will be to this child: “Don’t say ‘aunt,’” she says. “That’s so boring.”

In MADONNA, people speculate together. They riff. They try on language and then discard it. The script is scored with words inside quotation marks or outside (“Failing” versus failing), and in performance you can feel the characters reaching for language they are not sure they want to use. Characters characterize themselves and then revise their characterizations. They characterize each other. They are not sure they want to believe in the feelings they claim for themselves, either because they’re not sure they know exactly what they are feeling, or because they’re not sure if they believe in the feelings we claim for ourselves at all. These are emotions as they circulate in the boom-bust economy of our self-narration.

And this – testing, naming, retreating, reframing; lifting to the light the grays and yellows and beiges and browns of inner worlds – is often the dance of the play. MADONNA moves away from the “yelling” of Miller, Ibsen, or Letts (“Isn’t that the basis of ‘Western Drama’? Family Supper as Civil War”?) to something more granular and whispering. It feels like the shuffle of pages. It’s a stiller, sparer landscape, certainly; but it’s attempting to broaden our sense of where drama happens. I’d venture to call it a form of attending-to. To attend to one’s emotions as if navigating a relationship with another. To consider the available language of interiority with a truthful blend of skepticism, anxiety, and distance.

Einspanier, Sullivan, Gupta, and Cate McCrea (set and costumes) have built a world that gestures towards a Catholic church. Characters exit to sit in rounded onstage booths partially visible through crimson mesh (the booths are somewhere between apse, nook, and confessional). Gupta’s Marian hymns frame silences and stillness, and bells punctuate the hymns. A simple pointed arc tops the stage, organizing all under the suggestion of a gothic nave. The script calls for the play to run about the length of a mass, and characters’ names, of course, invoke New Testament figures.

But if Christ is present in Christine’s name, Kafka’s K is present in the name of her double. There’s an unsettling contemporary loop that Einspanier has introduced into the project of this play. Bewildered distance from one’s own emotional life is not a uniquely modern dramaturgical project (“My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown / Too headstrong for their mother,” Cressida says, circa 1609). But in MADONNA col BAMBINO, one gets the sense that characters aren’t striking their emotions and listening for the ring of truth so much as running their emotions through an algorithm and seeking assurances of what’s normal. When Christine feels a pang of uncertainty, she Googles it. (Whatever “it” is.) The worlds that Google opens up are meant to anchor us in a broader experience; in some sense of an average. But Google worlds are noisy. They can drown out the “it” we’re trying to Google in the first place.

Some of the moments I found most surprising and moving in the play hinged on this aural dimension (Caroline Eng was the sound designer). “Can you hear that?” Christine asks Martha at one point. And it’s true – we hear a gurgling, pulsing, oceanic sound. “What is that?” Christine wants to know. (She is always seeking names for things, even if Martha mocks her frequently-articulated desire to shake off binaries.) “My womb,” Martha answers. Martha’s inner landscape – on the most literal, biological level – here gets amplified, considered, inhabited. For once we can hear inner vastness, strangeness, loveliness, and force over the relentlessly verbal Twitter feed of the pop-psyche.

Which is not to say that a womb – or any biologically essentialist vision of maternity – is what the play comes down to. The other recurrent image – startling silent and still – is of one character drawing another. “Christine as ‘Artist.’ Merry as ‘Model,’” Einspanier says in the stage directions, with those ambivalent quotation marks again. Merry describes “Wanting to be a good model. A model something.”

That’s the anxiety, built around an empty, or at least ever-shifting, signifier, that lets Kafka’s K make sense to me as a player in this world as much as Catholicism’s Christ. In 2018 we inhabit a vast and ungoverned bureaucracy of the soul. We seek models and assurances, we rebuild according to blueprints gleaned from think-pieces and podcasts. Something like this, of course, was ever so (see Flaubert), but I’d venture to say that our Internetting has taken it to a new level.

This is why Einspanier and Sullivan’s stillnesses and silence, punctuated with hymns and bells, seem so charged with urgency to me. There must be a way to listen closely again to that vast weird something inside and between us. To turn up the volume on blood and desire and amniotic fluid until it becomes an ocean again. Family may be many things – ugly, inevitable, beautiful, and chosen – but the hope is that it can be shot through with an appropriately paradoxical blend of decision and awe.

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