I’m finally out from under the pile of paper described below and can focus on other things. During my precious subway-reading minutes over the past week, I’ve been engrossed with the new novel Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe (who, incidentally, is a friendly acquaintance of my coeditor). Just in time for the 400th anniversary of the original Jamestown settlement in Virgina, this novel reimagines the expedition in an unspecified future where Manhattan and Brooklyn are at war with each other and the world is so filled with toxins that there is virtually no food or water supply. In this dystopian setting, the “Manhattan Company” sends an expedition of men to Virginia to see if they can find any fuel or uncontaminated food. Anyone who is familiar with the original story can imagine how successful the men are with their mission, but between the gruesome descriptions of carnage, disease, and starvation, Sharpe fits in some of the best dialogue and character development I’ve seen in a long time. Sometimes it’s just a little too self-consciously clever, but the overall work is so tightly and vividly written that I can forgive him.

What I can’t forgive, however, is the over-the-top pointlessness of a “play” a friend and I attended the other night, entitled Wake Up, Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead! I should have been warned off by the title, but I was intrigued–experimental theater that combines live action with video and a whole lot of toys. The playwright, Richard Foreman, has written more than 50 plays and has received (and it kills me now to know this) a MacArthur Genius Grant, and his newest work had received some critical acclaim.

I guess I should start with positive statements: This production took a staggering amount of work. The five actors, muzzled with white cloths over their mouths and often wearing hoods and blindfolds, moved around the cluttered performance space with incredible precision. The live action coordinated seamlessly with the video projections (filmed, randomly, in Brazil), and all of it meshed perfectly with the cacophony of music samples, voice-overs, flashing lights, and the whirring of the mechanical fighter plane hanging from the ceiling. My hat is off to the army of interns who slaved away on this project.

The negative? I guess I could sum it up by saying that the total effect of the production is far, far less than the sum of its parts. I’ve never seen so much chaos add up to absolutely nothing. I remarked to my friend that it was so absurd that it almost seemed to be a cruel satire of experimental theater, including as it did the cliches of broken dolls (student art film, anyone?), vaguely menacing lines like “Tick-tock, tick-tock; it’s broken and it can’t be fixed” repeated ad nauseum, clumsy symbols of isolation and death, blah blah.

Another positive, though, was the fun we had trying to describe all of this to my friend’s fiance over burgers at the comfortingly prosaic Veselka afterward. We kept interrupting each other with details like “Remember that guy crouching on all fours, lapping yogurt out of a saucer? Oh, and what about when that guy put the dove on the other guy’s head and whacked it with a mallet? And what was it with those guys pretending to stir something in a bucket while they smacked their own asses? And then that girl started making out with the mannequin with the veil! What was the deal with that guy dressed up as an aviator, and why were the stuffed animals’ paws bound up with electrical tape? But it was pretty cool when those snakes dropped from the ceiling in their little parachutes!” The people at the next table must have thought we were insane. And I guess it did get my mind going–look at how many words I devoted to a book I liked compared with the words spent on a play I hated. Maybe it wasn’t so pointless after all.

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