If you’re a brilliant composer or writer or artist, chances are good that after your demise—or even, if you’re really good, before it—there will be one or more scripts or songs written about you. The biographical impulse in these cases is understandable: where there’s success, there’s a story arc. (Also, there’s ready-made marketing.) Really, though, it’s the minor players who provide the most fertile material for drama. What makes Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus great is not the character of Mozart, but the contrasting character of Salieri, the man who feels love and loss as deeply as anyone but lacks Mozart’s ability to crystallize those feelings in immortal compositions.
The great fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft (Derek Lee Miller) plays the Mozart role in Sandbox Theatre’s Unspeakable Things, a collaboratively created piece now filling the Red Eye Theater. Salieri is Donald Wandrei (John Middleton), a St. Paul writer who in real life was a moderately distinguished contributor to sci-fi and fantasy genre magazines—as was his brother Howard (Joey Ford). Unspeakable Things starts in the early 1970s, about 15 years after Howard’s death and about 15 years before Donald’s, and crawls back and forth through the decades as Donald considers the circumstances and decisions that have shaped his life.
|unspeakable things, presented through november 20 at red eye theater. for tickets ($15-$20) and information, see sandboxtheatreonline.com.|
Unspeakable Things is first and foremost a triumph of mood. The Monday night audience intially wanted to laugh at Middleton’s writerly idiosyncracies, but quickly fell hushed as details about Donald’s life emerged and surreal encounters mounted. An eerie but varied soundtrack seamlessly woven together by sound designer Tim Donohue underlines the sense of horror Donald feels at the lost opportunities and insurmountable limitations of his existence. Strange thumpings sound from doors, cupboards, and walls, and sometimes ghosts emerge to haunt the ashen-faced writer. Middleton, not particularly dynamic but consistently watchable, anchors a focused cast.
The second great achievement of Unspeakable Things is that of set design. Derek Lee Miller has transformed the Red Eye space into the Wandreis’ home (1152 Portland Avenue, if you want to swing by and tip your hat), with seating configured in the round. The depth and detail are incredible—if all you had to do for the play’s duration was sit there and stare, you wouldn’t be bored—and the set hides surprises including a fantastic large-scale apparation that attacks Middleton near the play’s conclusion. Ivey jurors, take note.
Under the direction of “project lead” Ryan Hill, the texture and pacing of Unspeakable Things are so good that they almost make a strength out of the production’s greatest weakness, which is—all too predictably for an ensemble-created piece—its overall structure, or lack thereof. Themes are dangled before us for a line or a minute or an encounter, then they disappear, perhaps to be revisited, perhaps not.
What is Unspeakable Things about? Is it about the agony of the artistic process, especially as experienced by those with only talent, not genius? Is it about the nature of escapist fiction? Is it about the wiles of women, especially as perceived by those who idealize them rather than approach them as human beings? Is it about the combination of love, admiration, and envy that characterize many of the closest friendships? Is it about guilt and regret?
The answer(s): yes. Unspeakable Things is about all of those ideas, without any one of them ever becoming central. That lack of resolution feels like a lost opportunity, but there’s also a deep satisfaction in the production’s prickliness, its constant surprises and refusal to offer any easy answers. Fiction, I was once told, is about what it’s not about. In that respect, perhaps the thematic paralysis of this hallocinogenic journey is precisely the point.