The Verisimilitude of the Mad Ones

Photo courtesy of Ben Arons Photography

There’s something uncanny about experiencing Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, the ensemble-created show by The Mad Ones and directed by Lila Neugebauer currently running through April 27 at the newly inaugurated “Ars Nova at Greenwich House” theater. There’s a prickle of uneasiness in watching what appears to be “real”: in this case, a focus group set in the 1970’s regarding a fictional children’s tv show.

Backing up a bit – of course, theater is not real, in the sense that it’s an occurrence happening live for the first and only time without rehearsal. I don’t think we want it be real in that way, at least not unless it’s labeled as improvisation. But even then, the improvisation would be a fakery, the performance of talented chameleons taking on the characteristics and thoughts of someone not themselves. So what if you could just actually put together a focus group, tell them to arrive at such and such a time, and then, surprise! There’s an audience. That might be real – but it might also turn into a performance, in that the audience would somehow position the occurrence in a different way. Audience demands performativity. Maybe if it was one of those rooms that have two-way glass and the focus group didn’t know there was an audience? But would it be interesting? Do we want to watch that? If so, why?

Shifting to a different critical lens, on performance quality: The Mad Ones are extraordinarily skilled at appearing ordinary. They seem to be committed to, for the most part, closing any discernible gap between “performance” and “real,” and presenting us with an experience like the one described above with the glass walls. There is also time travel involved – the show is set sometime in the 1970’s – and time travel is fun, so that adds to the enjoyment of the work. 

Finding the words to describe their specific performance quality proves elusive. Naturalism isn’t quite right, as I understand the term, although perhaps hyper-naturalism? There’s a similarity to some of Annie Baker’s work, at least in terms of pace and how it sounds, but Baker’s works are plays, and the words matter more in those worlds than they matter here. Words are not insignificant in the world of The Mad Ones, but they are secondary to behavior, or so intimately tied to behavior as to be inseparable. I’m not sure I would call Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie a play, as such, if only because a play suggests an exterior blueprint which is then built or enacted by a group of performers and designers. The Mad Ones appear to build out – they start with what is generally interior, a collection of tiny behavioral tells that shape human intention, and construct around it.

The process presumably starts with a map of some sort, to guide the exploration. Then the ensemble spends time investigating the possibilities of that theme and starting to build through an structured improvisational and composite editing process, which they record. (They explain the process in this video for their previous play, Miles for Mary, at Playwrights Horizons.) Eventually, that which will eventually appear on stage begins to emerge, through a highly meticulous editing process, which – of course – in performance will become completely invisible, the ghost strings from which the whole thing hangs in space.

There is something to that magic-trick quality present, which perhaps (for me at least) created the sensation of the uncanny, of a masterful illusion at work. It is, on one level, a re-enactment, but not of something that really happened. Its source is itself, creating a strange loop between its origin point – someone improvises something in a room which is recorded, and then that moment is recreated within a context of many moments just like it from different points of the creative process, all stitched together, then painted over and glossed so that we can’t see the brush strokes. 

So why do I want to see the brush strokes? Why did I feel like I was somehow being tricked into an experience instead of being invited into one? A really invigoratingly detailed and highly crafted experience, to be sure, but still – I left with an uneasiness.

A sense of unreality does creep in, along the margins. The (invented) TV show in question feels possibly unlikely to have been on mainstream television in the 1970s, as its main character – Mrs. Murray – is a black woman. (The play includes a conversation between focus group members on whether or not the puppets who accompany Mrs. Murray are white or black.) It’s not that it couldn’t have happened, and the setup is handled delicately and confidently enough that the question isn’t all that important – in this world, it exists. Yet, I also wondered – carefully, quietly inside my head – if the attitudes about race being voiced by the characters in the focus group were slightly more evolved than what would have been “real” in the 70s. There was an interesting friction in the historical revision, a bit as though these people had been transplanted with a larger understanding of the ongoing conversation about race our country has been having – which of course, they have, because these characters were created by performers who do carry that wisdom with them, and are making thoughtful choices based on said wisdom. But, because the play is set in the 70s and is not – as far as I could tell – trying to show us the gap between what that environment would have really been like and how what they’re showing us is different, there are no fingerholds to position ourselves with. If there’s added depth or meaning, it’s not something we can hold onto.

I want to see brush strokes because they let me know it’s a painting, not a photo. The brush stroke earns a different appreciation. It’s a different medium, and even if the image being created is so life-like as to be mistaken for a photo, it’s not. You have a way to prove it by tracing the energy of the brush’s path through paint. Maybe what I’m missing from The Mad Ones is a sense of intellectual distance between object and reality. A theatrical experience generates a play space. We know that this is a performance, and we know that what we’re seeing isn’t real – it’s not a photo, or a focus group happening for the first time behind a glass wall. Yet the work, for the most part, does not acknowledge its own unreality, which means… what exactly? Do I crave something stranger? Then again, isn’t watching humans be humans just about the most strangest experience of all? 

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