Photo by Marina McClure

The most holistically applicable screenplay-writing advice I ever received was to begin a story with a protagonist pursuing what they wanted, and end the story with the protagonist getting not what they wanted, but what they needed. A platitude? Sure. And yet how insistently this idea persists, not merely in film, but in how we aim to justify the events of our lives. Isn’t not-getting-what-we-want-but-what-we-need what we are all holding out for? What we’re all hoping we get before we die? Don’t we all pray for a synthesizing action at the end of our story that will tell us that, in the end, things were meant to happen this way? 

I thought about this advice watching New Georges’ ecstatic production of Leap and the Net Will Appear, a rapturous language-fest of a play by Chana Porter, directed with a magician’s touch by Tara Ahmadinejad, at The Flea Theater. The play follows the epic journey (think Barry Lyndon, David Copperfield, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch or Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge) of the character of Margie (played with bright-eyed ferocity by Polly Lee), who starts the play wanting to be a lion.  She concludes the play transforming into an elephant. We experience her life in novelistic episodes, smashed, (lyrically and theatrically) together as she mates, bears a child, abandons the child, travels the world, falls in love again, plots a murder, learns to settle, comes back to her son, mourns her mother, becomes an alcoholic, and surrenders to her fate, among other things. 

Mostly what Margie does, though, is wriggle in and out of platitudes and clichés, aphorisms, maxims, axioms and morals regarding How To Live that she must choose to accept or resist. (Note the title, please.) Often she tries both approaches – attempting to find fulfillment in a female domestic space (children, an appreciation of impressionist art) and in a female fun space (affairs), and then throwing each choice away. That she never attempts industry, intellectualism, art, or God seems to satirize how we view a woman’s search for meaning: whatever she pursues, it always involves company.  

In this vibrant production of Leap, language makes reality manifest. A staid business man asks Margie to her apartment and Margie responds, “Let’s,” followed by (without a beat or a shift) “This is a nice apartment.” But language is also not to be trusted. Simon, Margie’s father/grandfather (played by a deeply delightful Ron Domingo), offers a string of inspirational clichés starting with “Help others! Follow your passion! Live life to the fullest!” and ends the speech with poetic gems such as “Trust otters! Fruit labors! Peach tumors!” Does the key to life come less from real knowledge and more from a sense of rhythm? Pattern recognition? A skewed version of the old saying, “If it looks like a life, and it walks like a life, then it must be a life?”

Andrew Lynch’s wistful music offers a hypothesis of melody and rhythm as meaning in Leap. Sung by him, appearing in the production as a kind of conscience/troubadour, the songs are written in the script as “Margie’s Heart.” And yet the music exists not merely as emotional truth but also as a kind of deliberately misleading film-scoring. In Lynch’s hands, melodic phrases are as slippery and untrustworthy as any platitude within the play.

If we are to believe that, in the movie of our life, we get what we need, then we must situate ourselves as our own protagonists. We are not Non-Player-Characters in someone else’s video game, we are the ones holding the joystick. (What a term.) Our background music is within us – it is the emotional thrum that accompanies all our experiences. Our depression composes the minimalist score for every party we wish we could leave, our euphoric inspiration sounds triumphant chords for our countryside drive, our nerves bleat minor-key violin scritches on a creepily bad date. 

At the conclusion of Leap, the character of Margie absents herself from the action, letting the other characters end the play for her, in harmony, literally (as in they sing) and figuratively. Perhaps, what we need to be happy, the play posits, is to loosen our grip on the idea of the world as our own film with a conclusion that’s meant specifically for what we need.   

Naturally “we” is a tricky word. So look at the above, and replace all these we’s with I’s. After all, I’m my own protagonist. You’re over there, inscrutable to me as a lover, a grandparent, a child, a lion. 

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