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|A CurtainUp Review
The Race of the Ark Tattoo
By Les Gutman
When you go to the theater often, as I do, you eventually understand, or at least start to accept, the basic conventions of the place. Then along comes a playwright like W. David Hancock, who changes the contract between a play and its audience.
Oh sure, there are lots of people who break the rules: they tear down the fourth wall; they do "performance" instead of "theater" and, as we are painfully aware, they do "interactive" theater. But what Hancock does is something else yet, and he does it with purpose.
The Race of the Ark Tattoo is an exploration of the nebulous territory between memories and dreams. It takes place not in a theater but in a flea market (installed in a gallery on the side of P.S.122). If you arrive early, you'll wait outside until the announced opening hour of 7:30 P.M. Better yet, you can walk down East 9th Street and visit one of the other flea markets there. You might even want to chat with the proprietors.
Once you are permitted to enter the flea market of Mr. P. Foster (Matthew Maher), you'll find it quite similar to the others down the street: a hodgepodge of overpriced "junk" and an owner, sitting behind a counter, anxious to tell you about his wares and answer your questions. "Thanks for coming in; everything's for sale," he tells people as they enter. No one seems certain what part of this is commerce and what part is theater. (I'm still not entirely sure.) Is this man an actor or a merchant?
Foster is a foster (i.e., a foster child). His interest in flea markets derives from his most significant foster father, Homer Phinney, who maintained a standing flea market at his home. While Foster is endearing, he is also troubling. He shows the effects of a condition that produces blackouts (he calls them "power failures") and mild seizures. He is prone to violence and has taken medicine that "makes the mind forget how to feel certain emotions." These drugs also cause memory loss.
Most of the items in the flea market are old and seem to have belonged to Phinney. Each has a story, almost invariably recorded on "story cards" which are kept in an old scrapbook. After people have looked around, Foster collects some of the items about which they had questions along with some others, and places them in his "story ark" (a large "topless"toy Winnebago that he carries around with a strap over his shoulder). Then his "game" begins. Audience members are invited to close their eyes and reach in the ark to retrieve an item about which he will then tell a story -- part recitation, part recollection and, seemingly, part invention.
If this all seems unusual, it is; if it seems random, at least to some extent, it is that too. But do not be fooled. This is a deeply thought-out work, with an intriguing theme. It is elegantly written and painstakingly performed. That it changes every night underscores the nature of its subject. Memories and dreams are not fixed nor are they linear. In Foster's case, they can't be.
It takes a special sort of actor to sustain this performance. Maher is able to engage the audience directly while remaining in character, and to seem at once appealing and slightly frightening. Hancock, for his part, has concocted a treasure trove of stories, skillfully bound together by a core consisting of careful character development and raw-edged observations about how the mind works. The latter have a tendency to float over the stories, forcing one to ponder their inter-related meaning. Language was invented, we are told, "to keep people out of your head." A coma is God's way of giving you "a few years by yourself to collect your thoughts." Autism is "falling asleep inside your own dreams." Memories are smells and patterns.
What is "the race of the ark tattoo?" You'll find out but it doesn't matter. What does matter is that nostalgia will never be quite the same.