Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reza Abdoh's pocket epic theater

There are an overwhelming amount of things to do in New York; indeed, even if one restricts matters to what is going on in my university, certainly not the largest or busiest in the city, there are so many events put on each week that to attend even a third of them taxes one; stamina. Nonetheless, I try to make nearly every one of my Lang theatrical colleague Zishan Ugurlu's productions because of the eclecticism and cutting-edge nature of her material and as she has exceptional ability to motivate students to go to the very limit of their abilities. I was also interested in the work that was being put on, The Law of Remains by the Iranian-born American playwright Reza Abdoh. I knew his name, and that he had died far too young of AIDS, but was unfamiliar with the work. 

The appalling murders perpetrate by Jeffrey Dahmer, against the tableau of the institutionalized racism and homophobia that made his crimes possible, is at the heart of the play--not pathologized, though (they are already pathological enough) but seen in a social context, as an index of the cruel place America had become in the 1980s. Having just reread Prometheus Bound earlier in the day, it seemed very 'Greek' to me--the way in which drama was precisely what was unrepresentable in normal life and discourse, that it was the realm of the abject, the scapegoated, the sacred profane..also the son-contraptions were like choral odes, of course satiric or ironically deployed choral odes, but had the same sense of emotional release....the very idea of remains, the taboo of cannibalism, the association of sex with other appetites, the Greek idea of sparagmos or fragmentation (as in the Bacchae), were all very pertinent I think....also the element of satyr play in the tragedy, the feeling of celebration amid suffering and critique....

It was also though a very American play, a very national play. One thought of Tony Kushner's subtitle for Angels in America, "A gay fantasia on national themes', and that could apply to Abdoh's play (written maybe slightly earlier  as well, although Abdoh's vision is far more searing and radical, it makes Kushner look bourgeois while, far more economically, making many of the same points not only about racism and homophobia but about their cultural matrix and mythic valence. I am teaching Kushner this summer and will definitely let my students know of Abdoh as a complementary, yet more radical, counterpoint. The subject of the course is epic drama, and Abdoh's work, in its raw, intense, lyricism, can be seen as a sort of pocket epic, packing the punch of panoramic social critique without the discursive mega-pretensions of Kushner that, despite himself (and for all their moving and vision), can be seen as tying his vision back into Reaganite grandiosity. And indeed the figure of President Ronald Reagan is pertinent here. The cathartic moment of the play was the revelation of a prone, wax-like figure of  Reagan, gazing mindlessly on the action; this theatrical touch expressed all the polemical fervor of Kushner's anti-Reaganism while making it more visceral and more profoundly accusatory to the audience: You, hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frère. 

 I felt totally repelled the first ten minutes, mesmerized for the rest. It was the same feeling that had been transmuted from a curse into a blessing. This is so much more a bass for theatrical exultation than a stance of bland, polite acceptance ab initio. The stage, an oblong rectangle that a spectator directly confronting the stage could not see entirely,  was fascinating as not seeing it all put the spectator in an unaccustomed position. Usually as a viewer you have the perspectival advantage over the actors. But here it was more like being in a real place having to look around.

Of course  none of these students were anything but babies or perhaps even alive at the time of the events and attitudes the play describes. They showed astonishing facility in immediately adapting themselves to the play, adhering to roles so quickly and reflexively--and the roles were not traditional roles but speakers, stances, perspectives. And their rendition of a very topical play made it not just an adaptation but a regeneration, a reanimation, an appropriation.....Abdoh's family and loved ones were represented in the audience and apparently approved of the work precisely in its sense of adaptation, that the work was not just archivally tied to the living body of its author but could be shifted, redeployed, had what textual scholars call mouvance. This adaptability being the essence of practice is, to me, what theatre and literary criticism, as acts, have most in common....

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