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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Les Gutman
The above serves as the only reasonable reaction one might have to the Flea Theater's production of Mac Wellman's Cellophane. It also serves as a convenient jumping-on point for contemplating it.
"Un-huh," you see, is really a pair of nonsense words, the meaning of which is conveyed by the tone in which the two syllables are delivered. Spoken flat, it may mean nothing more than "yes". In a rising pattern, it may be "you've got my attention" while, falling, the same words may convey tedium. I could go on listing further alternatives for a while, but I won't.
Wellman, who has exerted an enormous amount of energy over his writing career contemplating words-as-nonsense (see, e.g., Terminal Hip), may have outdone himself here. In this piece (it would be hard to call it a play), twenty-one members of The Bats (The Flea's resident acting company) variously recite (or in some cases sing) his nonsense poems. To be fair, enough occasionally make enough sense that we get the feel of a message -- a sort of frustrated dyspepsia underlying yet complicit in an unraveling cultural demise. It is, we are told by the press release, "a spiritual history (and spectral portrait) of America, through the medium of Bad Language". Director Jim Simpson, on the other hand, notes that its "broken familiar language in the American Idiom... captures emotional terrain unfamiliar to typical theatrical geography." To save me the trouble, he goes on to state, "It all means nothing. Yet it also means something."
I'm hesitant to overdescribe Cellophane. The audience sits all over the downstairs theater at The Flea on stools of varying heights with rotating seats. The cast appears randomly in front of, behind or amongst the audience, oftentimes verbally assaulting individual audience members with variously-styled rants. (One poem, "Ain't I Society", is recited, quite effectively, in a total blackout.)
There is a collection of Wellman plays published under the title Cellophane, which includes the title work. This presentation includes material from that as well as two other volumes, A Man Falling Downstairs and Mad Potatoes. What is the effect of all this? Perhaps it's like the man who sits besides you on the train and commences an uninvited one-way conversation freely associating words that don't fit together but that nonetheless leaves an impression of seemingly benign belligerence. Or maybe you find yourself in a club where a chemically-enhanced individual tries to explain something to you above the music; you don't catch all he is saying but it doesn't really seem to matter to either of you. It's possible you're just in a foreign country in which you only had time to master a few dozen words of the native tongue, so you make out expressions that strike you as familiar, but can't quite tie them together. Or have you survived an apocalypse and this is what you get as your reward?
How much of this you are willing to consider is directly proportional to how indulgent you are of Mr. Wellman's exercise. It's not a painful experience, and the cast of (mostly) fresh-faced, heavily committed actors keeps it pretty entertaining. In the finalé, a bubble-making machine is added to the mix, presumably to reïnforce the theme.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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