Once Upon a Time – a way to play with SUPERSTITIONS
There’s a game I like to play with plays, especially those that scramble the routine plot templates into more complicated systems and harder-to-recognize shapes. I call it “Once Upon a Time” and I’m almost sure I didn’t invent it — I’m copying someone but I don’t know who. Maybe everyone does it, but I’ve never written about it before.
It’s a tool I like for the purposes of determining “what is it”, which is sometimes all that is necessary to unlock ones enjoyment or appreciation of the work.
It also adds lighthearted child-like play to the art of talking about the play, which I think we can all appreciate. Whatever one is prepared to levy against or for the structure seems less critical, and equally important, it demonstrates one’s individual understanding of the work in a way that isn’t so oppressively tied to subjectivity. One can say, objectively, here is what happened (from an individual point of view or way of watching, which is, of course, still subjective. You can’t fully escape it).
Let us apply this to Emily Zemba’s new play Superstitions, a sparklingly intelligent contribution to the 2021 edition of THE POOL where it is completing a run at The New Ohio Theater (closes on November 20th). It’s the kind of play that you walk away with a great deal of appreciation for but also without a solid basis on how one would even begin to discuss it. The best I could do right after the show was, “Man, I haven’t seen a play like that for awhile.”
Once upon a time, there is a woman on a bench staring into the middle distance. Then a man comes. He has a big map. He finds a penny and tries to give it to her. She accepts the penny, and they discuss various superstitions. These superstitions include the full telling of why one throws salt over one’s left shoulder. It’s a way to blind the devil, who is watching you from that specific vantage point. The man in this scene is not from this country. He doesn’t really seem to understand what makes a superstition a superstition, but he does understand bad luck.
Then, once upon a time but after that first time, there’s a high-energy fast-talking couple who are waiting for a real estate agent. One of them keeps licking salt, which they are pouring from a salt shaker onto their hand. The couple is not sure whether they are too early (for the meeting? for the buying of the house?) and after awhile the real estate agent does not come.
Then there’s a man in a movie theater alone. He is interrupted/joined by a second movie goer, who has arrived only in time to see the ending. They watch the credits together. They have a conversation about the salt content of popcorn, and the man reveals that he has recently lost his job. When he leaves, he redresses himself in such a way that it will seem that he is coming from work. (Shades of Tennessee Williams but also its own thing.)
Then there’s a mother and daughter (or young person in the care of an older person, I wasn’t able to fully determine the nature of their relationship other than it was strained) who are visiting a place with a tower. The daughter is being told what to do by the mother/older person and doesn’t like it. The mother/older person is bumped into by the man from the first scene in the first instance that one of the characters from the other episodes interrupts a current episode. The mother/older person gets upset at him for some reason and tears up his map. He is sad. He leaves. She becomes convinced that he stole her wallet, which she just now finds that she is missing. Was there salt in this part of the story? I can’t remember.
Then! This is from memory so I might start losing the thread pretty soon, but — I think what happens is the woman from the first scene encounters salt falling from the sky, and then enters a door in which she finds the couple from the second scene. She is the real estate agent! She looks like the picture on the real estate agencies website, which settles a previous argument between the couple. She extols the virtues of the house, but also reveals the information that there is a man in the wall. This turns out to be true, in the literal sense. The man in the wall eventually escapes. The couple, undeterred, takes the house anyway.
Then… I’m going to stop. I’ll say that there are several more appearances by phantasmagoric presences, perhaps the devil? But dressed more like a demon in black. These monsters haunt the proceedings without having a direct impact on it. The various characters uncover their relationships through sequencing reveals — we learn who the guy in the movie theater is trying to fool with his business attire. There’s a puzzle-like aspect to this that is mentally pleasing, the way you snap a piece of puzzle into the larger whole and in doing so reveal more of the picture along the way.
One thing I like about the ‘Once Upon a Time’ filter is that it invites you to state the obvious. For example, this is pretty clearly not a story that really fits into the traditional ‘Once Upon a Time’ structure. It’s too dispersed, takes time to start the eventual series of narrative collisions, and wouldn’t hold your attention if it was told around a campfire or for bedtime. Unless. And here’s the first obvious statement — it relies on a particular way of telling. If you told this right, you could make it totally delightful and scary and all the the things we like from storytelling around fires or in beds. Another way to put it is that this is not a narrative-driven world; rather it’s a world that relies on the use of language, strangeness, incongruities that are made congruous at unexpected times throughout. The language feels interwoven but stretchy — it can be deployed in multiple ways throughout the work. Sometimes silence works best, and Zemba (and director Jenna Worsham) don’t shy away from those opportunities.
Themes start to emerge — the salt is an obvious one, and helps unify the early scenes prior to the puzzle being completed enough for us to see the overall shape of things. There is an underlying anxiety and sadness to the interactions, amplified most specifically through the foreign stranger man with a map (played by David Greenspan, so you know he’ll be memorable one way or the other).
There are limitations too, some of which are at least bumped into here. The language, as glistening as it may be, doesn’t always grip tightly enough, which allows for some mental drifting particularly in the middle sections. And there is a particularly vivid scene in which Zemba finds some harder-hitting drama and suddenly doesn’t really need the language and suggests something deeper underneath the surface chaos. There’s nothing heightened about one person saying to another, “I guess it happens all the time, but people don’t talk about it.” With regard to what I won’t spoil, but it’s also a great underlying theme for Superstitions as a whole. Let’s talk about it.