SHOW TITLE: Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole.
HAILING FROM: Arizona
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Unable to speak, dying of lung cancer, and while my mother was taking her last breathes I admitted to her that I had sexually assaulted two women. I’m sick. Depressed. In need of help. This is a true story.
It’s challenging to try to write something about the show while sidestepping the controversy surrounding it – because this is a show that really revolves around blurring the line between artist and audience, and that controversy is an active component of the hour that he’s onstage.
I do want to emphasize that my (or anyone’s) personal evaluation of the quality of the show is completely separate from arguments about its value (and I have written about that issue at this link ). And while I’m loath to contribute to how vituperative the argument has become, I will say that giving as expertly crafted a show as this zero stars is not a legitimate evaluation, but an ideological statement, and as an “art-for-art’s-sake” type I find that to be really, really sh***y.
That said, I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I loved the sh*t out of this, and that it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen in the Festival so far.
I’m going to start by talking about form, rather than content. My observation is that this guy tends to have his most significant following among other artists, and it’s not hard to see why: as theater practitioners, we are trained that every aspect of what we do – voice, stance, pacing – is for the audience. We rarely turn more than three quarters away from the crowd. We project to the seat at the very back of the theater. If the audience responds, we pause to allow them to. These practices are ingrained in us, to the point that they become unconscious background processes for us.
Sean lurches onto a stage and says, f**k all that. He stares at a sheaf of paper in his hand, only occasionally remembering to glance up at us. He mumbles. He stumbles. You have to lean forward to hear him at various points. It is almost stubbornly atheatrical.
Which is deceptive, because this is still masterfully performed. His voice quavers. His hand shakes, at very specific places. His performance touches are subtle – blink and you’ll miss them – but you feel rewarded for catching them. He actually manages to create the effect that all of our theater tricks are designed to do – he counterfeits reality. Successfully, judging by the look of disgust on the face of the woman to my left. This is as much a statement about the nature of art and theater as it is about sexual assault.
But it is about sexual assault, because all of this is at the service of content. The writing, like the performance, is superficially unpolished – he fixates on bizarre details that seem to have nothing to do with the narrative, while glossing over elements that seem critically important to us. When he makes shocking or misogynistic statements, he doesn’t turn out to us to gauge our response. He doesn’t alter his delivery. He mumbles through them, because they mean nothing to him. That is the precise reason that they’re so effectively shocking – the horrifying statements he makes are just part of his own subconscious monologue. In his view, they don’t deserve special attention. Our response plays no part in it. It is the most unsettling depiction of a rapist that I have ever seen on a stage, because it is understated. Form and content are married to an astonishing degree.
Thought it was brilliant, in other words.
Debating whether or not to throw this point out here, but, y’know, what the hell. Entirely separate from the view of whether or not this is a good or bad production, whether or not it’s responsible or irresponsible, I’m ashamed of the reception that my community has given him. I understand a dislike, even a hatred, of this show. But there’s more to this than meets the eye, and I can’t view the active dismissal of it to be anything other than intellectual cowardice.
Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!
phillip andrew bennett low is a Chinese-American playwright and poet, storyteller and mime, theatre critic and libertarian activist. His performances have won acclaim from Minneapolis to Chicago, DC to LA — even as far as Melbourne, Australia. He is the co-founder of the Rockstar Storytellers and was founder and producer of the touring theatre troupe Maximum Verbosity. He has published a book of political humor, Indecision Now! A Libertarian Rage, and will be presenting his own show in the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival, The Secret Book of Jesus.