A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THINGI’LL NEVER DO AGAIN after David Foster Wallace
According to David Foster Wallace, the American novelist, short story writer and essayist, "fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being." For those unfamiliar with his work, he first attracted attention in 1996 for his 1,000+-page novel "Infinite Jest." Plagued with depression all his life, he committed suicide in September, 2008, while working on another novel "The Pale King." Completed by his colleagues and published last year, it was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
When New York-based theater artist Daniel Fish read Wallace’s fiction he described it as, "if I was somehow seeing more, in a more heightened state-like [Wallace] cut open my head and put in some super smart lens that made me see more deeply and compassionately-with greater attention to what’s painful and what’s funny."
Wallace’s writing is the backbone of "A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THINGI’LL NEVER DO AGAIN after David Foster Wallace," a theater piece conceived by Fish that played at Emerson’s The Next Thing Festival this past weekend.
As you wait to be escorted into a rehearsal studio, the space in which the performance will take place, you hear what must be the sound of a primitive drum announcing an impending battle. Actually, it’s an automatic tennis ball launcher lobbing balls against an empty wooden box. The floor is covered with tennis balls. You have to step around them to get to your seat.
What’s with all the balls? They are mostly yellow, but one lonely ball is pink, and they all seem to be imprinted with "XXX." Some are geometrically placed in the performance area, some coagulate in a bundle of audio cords, and still others bounce off the walls, the floor, and even the performers.
Perhaps they serve as a warning: What you are about to witness will be more like a sporting event than the kind of thing you’re accustomed to seeing in a theater.
This is because each of the five performers, four women and one man, wear headphones, and they each wait to hear the voice of David Foster Wallace and echo it to the audience. None of them are certain who will be chosen or what they will be expected to repeat, only that it will be the recorded words of the author.
Wallace usually speaks quite quickly, and he has a lot to say. Generally the performers have their eyes closed, they are focused on the sound and they don’t want to miss repeating anything. At times they fall behind and blurt out, "Oh fuck, oh fuck!" in spite of themselves. The director sits in the center of the audience, like a DJ mixing the music, turning the volume up on one speaker and down on another.
Even in this ballgame atmosphere, where words are volleyed from director to actor to audience, you are aware that David Foster Wallace is an amazing writer, full of captivating imagery and paralyzing insights. But are his images (in one case the sights and smells of a men’s room) really served by a woman in a puddle of tennis balls, athletically mimicking and exhaustedly doing jumping jacks?
The device is far more salient at the times we clearly see individual interpretations. At one moment, David Foster Wallace is being interviewed. We don’t hear the interviewer; we only hear Wallace’s voice coming from the various members of the ensemble. However, we do see the performers listening to the interview questions. Therese Plaehn wears a warm smile, distinctly her own. She is sincere and friendly. John Amir, on the other hand looks slightly befuddle and cautious of the interviewer. They both respond at the same time with the same words.
One of the most theatrically powerful moments happens in the final tableau, as the garish overhead lighting is replaced with something ambient. At this time, we hear the words of someone other than David Foster Wallace talking about him. In the performance I saw, Therese Plaehn was chosen to speak. She reflected words that reflected the memory of a man-a man that you’d like to get to know better. You saw both David Foster Wallace and how powerful words on stage can be when they are translated through a great actor. And you felt the aching loss when a brilliant writer’s words are cut-off in midsentence.