William Burke’s Containers: VARIATIONS ON THE MAIN

Photo by Kevin Frest

“It’s okay to have container for containers.” This utterance is voiced in the later half of William Burke’s Variations on the Main, currently running at JACK (as the final production to take place in its current-soon-to-be-former location) through March 30th. The phrase, in the show’s context, specifically refers to a cigar box that was inherited from a grandparent, a container which once contained the physical (cigars) but now contains something more ephemeral (an odor, a memory), and presumably has been stored in some other container – a drawer, a box perhaps. Thus, a container for containers.

It’s not such a bad succinct descriptor for the show at large either. Comprised of a series of ruminative monologues and several pieces of shared text which I hesitate to qualify as “scenes” (although they do involve a conversation between actors, of which there are three) and structured on top of and around musical sequences composed and performed by the ineffable Catherine Brookman, the show is described within marketing materials as ‘a theatrical séance for listening,’ which isn’t inaccurate, although the word séance feels misleading. It’s not so much a communing with the dead as an un-containing of the self, casting meaning into the void, hoping perhaps to receive some echo of that meaning back, in the shape of a hug, or song, or strip of tinfoil torn from the wall.

The simple design (by Megan Lang) also contains and un-contains. Strips of cloth attached to elastic cords protect the center of the circle (around which the audience sits), until eventually they are stripped away. At times the actors (Kate Benson, Layla Khoshnoidi, and Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez) navigate the space, pulling the cords here and there, as Brookman makes chords of her own from an LED-lit piano that serves as the central focal point of the performance. At other times, they remain seated in chairs alongside the audience on the outside of the circle, activated by subtle lighting cues. They speak awhile and fall quiet again. Their text is not-quite-narrative, embodying the space between knowing and not knowing – like, I know what I want to say but I don’t know why I’m saying it. Or, I’m saying this without knowing what it means. Or, it doesn’t matter what it means, so long as it creates meaning. Text as container for meaning. Catch and release. It’s the kind of text that doesn’t punish you for drifting away from it for a time. Soon enough, something will shift and pull you back in.

The venue – its foil walls mostly, thus far intact, although one assumes they may be stripped almost bare by the end of the run – acts as the larger container for containers. Burke and team (his co-director is Bryn Herdrich) have been given the opportunity to deconstruct it and they don’t waste the chance, but they also transform the experience into something more durational and meditative, ranging from big picture questions on what might happen after one’s death to microcosmic internal crises, like how one somehow gets out of bed, or whether one should. My take: we get out of bed because, eventually, we have to, in order to get back into bed again later. We tear things apart and put them together again. We create meaning out of fragments, and then we leaf-blow those fragments about the room until something else needs to happen.

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