This Box Tickles Fascists: On Brandon Woolf’s THE CONSOLE
“Should I lick it, or do you want to lick it?”
“I’ll lick it.”
After the envelope is daringly licked and sealed, three steps are taken from red stool to adjacent mailbox, and a “consolation letter” is ceremoniously dispatched from brownstone Brooklyn to Boynton Beach, Florida.
Atop the cool blue vessel of credit card offers and bland birthday wishes, lately electrified by accusations of untrustworthiness (venial) and unprofitability (mortal), is a bottle of hand sanitizer, angled with a set designer’s eye. The sanitizer makes the mailbox pop. Up against The Box rests a vertical filer in dark wood, arranged with implements of the scrivener’s trade: envelopes, stationary and stamps.
Handing the family dog off to mom, who just sent the letter to Boynton Beach, a teenager eagerly plops on the red stool across from Brandon Woolf and his typewriter.
“Is he like one of those busker poets,” a passerby wonders, to whom it is uncertain.
“I’m a medium!” Brandon counters emphatically, as he hustles a new piece of stationary into his Royal for the young woman now on the red stool.
Perched over 1940s typewriter, under a come-and-go October sun, Brandon, in yellow mask, and a United States Postal Service long-sleeve tee, is sitting “with” The Mailbox at the northwest corner of Fourth St. and Prospect Park West.
“You’ve got a line,” a new passerby observes—crystalline New York resentment at the inconvenience—to which Brandon responds, “I’m here till November 3.”
Passerby smiles. She swallows. With playful dread she asks, “what’s happening November 3?”
We are all waiting. We are all uncertain.
Brandon’s response is The Console, offering “free Letters for friends feeling blue.” It’s a performance, built for waiting—actively—in the thrill and tension of abrupt intimacy.
November 3 has the potential to be a very long Tuesday, a Tuesday that could last until January, and reverberate long beyond. The mailbox has an outsize significance in relation to Nov. 3, a contested significance it’s never quite had before.
In “been there forever” mom and pops scattered over the surrounding blocks, Fox News dumps scorn on the mailbox; hapless, unprofitable pinko it surely is; from behind masks in the bulk food aisle at the mythic Park Slope Food Coop, distanced in-person shoppers, ghosting Jeff Bezos after those first couple months of reluctant reliance, reflexively venerate it, gesturing, with a touch of Cardi’s swag, to compare the size of the postcard stacks they’ve sent south and west.
A director and theatermaker, frustrated by isolation, by “our devices and our fucking Zoom,” Brandon prefers to just be with the mailbox. And you. To feed The Box with whatever happens between you and he in the presence of It.
He’s been thinking about “the way our mailboxes are maligned as spaces of public futility” but also been growing excited about “how they’re also bizarrely these spaces of hope and contestation right now.” For Brandon, the driving questions behind The Console were “what would it mean to activate these public spaces in all of their contradictions? What would it mean to sit in the contradiction of the space?”
To my mind, that of a theater-starved playwright, but also a friend and collaborator initially drawn to Brandon’s site-specific performance out of affinity as much as critical fascination, it is meaning a lot.
The Console has what almost every other piece of “theater” lobbed at my inbox in the last 7 months lacks: liveness. Along with the liveness of unmediated human presence, it manages to be zeitgeisty, equal parts response to Covid isolation and election anxiety, in a way that isn’t instructive. It feels vital, earnest, and all the more critically alive for its irreverence.
The ingenious found-space set design summons voices with many points of origin, and these ever shifting constellations are the civic body, the body the mailbox serves. We are the shareholders in this object the whole conceit gently reminds us. So, it doesn’t fucking matter if it turns a profit!
Simultaneously, Brandon is generating glimpses—beyond his control—for you, for himself, for passersby, into the individual and idiosyncratic, at a time when we are most prone to see each other in clear camps and when the interactions with strangers that typically add up to a city day have become so much fewer.
Photo by Diego Gurner-Stewart
The young woman who traded stool for dog speaks to Brandon in soft tones, throwing glances back at her mom, hovering just behind.
“I need a sip of coffee to write a consolation love letter,” Brandon sighs and apologizes. Waiting, his audience of one leans into their period film construct, wherein words will be typed on paper, then travel in slow analog time towards her distant beaux in Toledo, Ohio.
Brandon, having fun, begins to mock-type, dictating loudly: “My mom is here so I can’t tell you everything. My mom is hovering so I have to speak in code.” Mom, pushed by Brandon’s playfulness, pulled by the family dog, takes the hint and triples her social distance.
Stew, playwright and composer of Passing Strange, related a similar compulsion to walk away, more implicitly felt, as he waited another day for his own letter. “It was super clear that this was an intimate encounter that the person seemed keen on having,” Stew recalled. “It wasn’t casual. I could hear what was being said and I didn’t want to pry.”
I observed this too as I waited, and frequently found myself backing away.
“People get in his space, and to use my students’ phrase, it’s a safe space,” Stew continues. “I don’t know how safe it actually is—but they feel safe. The post box is like the tree in Godot, hovering, I don’t want to say menacingly, but certainly as a dark reminder that this essential, impossibly sentimental object is now in danger. I find this quietly radical, people writing to friends who are dying, to family they haven’t seen in a year, on a street corner with a man they’ve never met.”
As they imagine together what each addressee will find consoling, the guest sometimes dictating, Brandon sometimes tossing out lines or structural possibilities, a consolation letter emerges from Brandon’s fingertips, and so too does consolation in the space between scrivener and audience.
But then, laughing, Stew adds, “in the midst of this somber, deep letter someone is writing, this line pops out, ‘should I lick it, or do you want to?’
In that gleeful and provocative refrain is the reminder that for all its sincerity, this is a performance. Despite its recursion to playfulness, the performance has weighty antecedents. It is rooted in the consolation letters of Seneca, which Brandon spent the first few months of the pandemic reading, excited to learn, in his isolation and desolation, that consolation was a robust literary genre in ancient Rome.
“If the universality of fate can be of any comfort in your bereavement, realize that nothing will remain standing where it now stands, that old age will topple everything and sweep it away” Brandon quotes delightedly from Seneca. Then paraphrasing: “And he basically goes on to say, hang in there, shit could be worse. And all that stuff hasn’t totally happened yet, so just be thankful that the person you’re grieving or the thing you’re grieving didn’t have to go through that.
“Anyway,” Brandon adds, “I was sort of tickled by all of these attempts to convince you that your grief is unfounded.” And yet, he is genuinely trying to do it, for himself as much as for his audiences of one. Floating over everything—dependent on what happens Tuesday—is the more contest-oriented meaning of consolation.
“I like the one that asks, you know, if you knew in advance that you’re on this journey, that you’re sailing on this journey, that’s going to be filled with all this terror and horror, would you still agree to go on it? And you know, in a way, that’s what life is. And we do it.” In Brandon’s 20th century New York voice it sounds like the opening to Annie Hall.
The project is equally rooted in pages about Messianism and waiting from Talmud, pages Brandon has been reading and rereading for years: “we fool ourselves if we fill our waiting with a kind of anticipation,” Brandon preaches, as much to himself as to me, “and this leads to a kind of misery. But the messianic puts us in this place of, at least in the ideal setting, what would it mean to wait actively without calculating the end, but to sort of find, I guess, the presence you could call it, or satisfaction?”
In questions of “what comes next, what comes after, and was it already here” Brandon sees a linkage between Talmudic messianism and Seneca’s genre letters. It’s a linkage he is channeling with empathy and mischief, provocation and kindness, intent on culling drama from waiting and the newly charged significance of the mailbox, but also intent on being salve in some way.
He talks about the mailbox with the awe of someone in the third week of an incredible romance. “I was sitting there,” Brandon reminisces, recalling his first installation date in early October, “and this woman asked me to move my hand sanitizer so she could take a selfie of herself putting the ballot in the box. All of this doubt on the one hand, and hope on the other. We still put the letters into The Box.”