Christopher Bernard reviews The Unheard-of World at San Francisco’s Exit Theater

02 foolsFURY. The Unheard of World. Joan Howard pictured center. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

The Unheard of World. Joan Howard pictured center. Photo by Robbie Sweeny







The Unheard of World

By Fabrice Melquiot

Translated by Michelle Haner

Exit Theater

San Francisco

A review by Christopher Bernard

Even with the best of intentions, to say nothing of energy, intelligence and talent, world premieres can be treacherous things. The premiere of an English translation of a modern French play can be more treacherous than most, given the great differences of premises and expectations between French and American audiences—including such things as their different senses of humor and attitudes toward philosophy, which can quickly become awkward in a philosophical comedy.

The latest production by one of San Francisco’s most audacious companies, foolsFURY, which in October premiered, as part of its Contemporary French Plays Project, Michelle Haner’s translation of Fabrice Melquiot’s magical realist Le Monde inouï is a textbook case. (Melquiot is a prominent contemporary French playwright; foolsFURY produced The Devil on All Sides, in artistic director Ben Yalom’s translation, to much acclaim in 2006.)

And the problems are compounded when the original itself has worked out its artistic challenges with only middling success.

The awkwardly titled (if linguistically correct) The Unheard of World, despite its undeniable intellectual interest, comes across as a slightly creaky example of French absurdism, which was so exciting in the mid-20th century but today is in danger of losing the battle against its own mannerisms.

Absurdist theater—with its roots in the symbolism of Maeterlinck and the expressionism of Strindberg, but officially beginning with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, peaking in the 1950s and ’60s in the major works of Beckett and Ionesco, and continuing through its descendants, including the magical realism of Melquiot’s play—has always intended to shake up audiences by presenting ideas that challenge their premises about human psychology, morality, sexual relations; even the nature of reality itself. It was the original “disruptive” theater in that sense.

But for an absurdist play (indeed, for any play) to succeed, its philosophical bases need tobe worked out thoroughly and presented consistently while being (in the case of absurdism), not only strange, but original; which are not, of course, the same thing. It’s a tricky balancing act in any genre, but even more so in absurdist theater, since by taking more liberties, it sets itself a higher bar for success.

This is what makes the work of the greatest absurdists, such as Ionesco and Beckett, so powerful and effective to this day, and the work of such minor absurdists as Adamov or Arrabal so problematic. It isn’t enough to have an interesting idea and then cast it into a story that makes a handful of tries at making sense according to classical narrative. Ideas,however odd, weird, thought-provoking, or indeed brilliant, are not always enough.

Absurdis theater—an attempt to overturn all genres—is in danger of turning into the very thing it tried to escape; it has already turned into something of a formula. That formula requires, first of all, a cast of slightly bizarre characters that are just recognizable as human, though with flattened, cartoon-like psychologies, since the philosophicaal emphasis of the scenarios means that it would overcomplicate the story to have characterswith complex or subtle psychologies.

In Melquiot’s play, for example, there is a 200,000 year old man, with the name (with its strong suggestion of the occult) of Balthazar Cucurbitum Gégéranium de Rosa Rosae Rosarum [a dynamic Brian Livingston], High Commissioner of the Unheard of World, Keeper of the Cavern of Plaster Casts, “the oldest Homo sapien alive then dead then alivve.”

There is The No Child (Paul Collins): a fetus that miraculously lives for seven years in his mother’s womb before dying as a result of his refusal to be born, and who, now a ghost in “the unheard of world,” is condemned to wander the bowels of the earth forever, longs to be annihilated: to return to a nothing so complete that he is not even remembered.

There is a Little Girl Bear (an inspired Joan Howard): a young girl who was eaten alive by a bear which then died while trying to swallow her; as a result, she appears, hunched inside the bear’s body as if it were a kind of overcoat, as a face peeping out between his jaws. She is the only being in “the unheard of world” who can grant complete annihilation to the dead, though at the price that she is never allowed to forget them and spends her days obsessively repeating their names.

There is Odessa (an overwrought Debórah Eliezer), a woman who died unable to have children of her own, and who feeds on a daily diet of manure in a hapless quest to incite her own fertility.

And last but not least there is a Chorus of Raindrops (which in one or two cases later become ink drops) (arbitrarily attired in World War I pilot helmets and goggles and gamely realized by Nkechi Emerua, Joan Howard, Kimberly Lester, Lydia Raag, and Debórah Eliezer), whose theatrical purpose is unclear, though they seem to be an attempt to create a coherence the story by itself struggles to attain.

The absurdist formula requires an unexpected, preferably shocking, setting, in this case inside an earth depicted (mimicking theories that go back to ancient times in many cultures) as an enormous empty shell; in Melquiot’s hollowed-out earth, the ghosts of every human being who has ever lived and died (by rough count, 70 billion since the earliest hominids) now subsist.

And it requires an original philosophical conceit, in this case the “Cavern of Plaster Casts” already mentioned, which, in an interesting (though not completely thought out) variation of Plato’s Ideal Forms, in combination with a reference to Plato’s myth of the cave (to say nothing of the cave of Ali Baba), represent the eternal forms of existing things, though produced after the actual objects come into existence, rather than, as in Plato’s philosophy, serving as the bases from which all existing things are made.

Last of all, the absurdist formula requires original theatricality.

It is here that the play falls down. The Unheard of World tries to combine, with the absurdist elements just described, a classical quest story (in fact two: that of The No Child, who has died but now seeks annihilation, though not for any clear reason, and that of the barren woman, who seeks, in a nice symmetry with The No Child, to multiply (rather than annihilate) herself by having a baby, and manages to have one by, in a poetically ironic touch, stealing the “eternal plaster cast” of The No Child, further complicating his quest for oblivion: if he is to be annihilated, his plaster cast will have to be annihilated too) and a classical romance, in this case between The No Child and the Little Girl Bear: the creature that wishes to be annihilated falls in love with the only creature than can annihilate him, and vice versa.

The problem is that the absurdist elements clash with the point and interest of the classical ones. Every play has its own logic—without that logic, there is no interest. Evenemotions have their logic; and all theater, whether comedy or tragedy, if it is to be successful, must follow the iron logic of emotional motivation. Most plays accept the logic of everyday life. Absurdist plays have different premises, but they still must obey their own logic, their own laws, or they pay the price of being more frustrating than satisfying as theatrical experiences.

Melquiot has not worked out the logical conclusions of his premises, and tries to have it both ways: an “absurdist” premise with a “classical” narrative and conclusion. The result is that the play ends up working at cross purposes with itself. It’s a hodgepodge, and freezes up, despite its baroque rhetoric and an avalanche of action, paralyzed by its own contradictions, long before its conclusion.

The play suffers from a central dilemma of absurdist theater: if anything can happen, nothing is interesting. The ultimate effect of complete absurdity is, unexpectedly, boredom.The play’s biggest single mistake, however, may be in trying to pursue too many ideas at once, from the Arabian Nights to Plato to postmodernism to the Brothers Grimm, and not concentrating on one or two. This would have made contradictions, when they happened, clearer, and probably easier to solve. The production seems to make a similar mistake, compounding the problem.

The cast makes an energetic effort with their difficult task of bringing a play that is so much at war with itself convincingly to life. Brian Livingston is brilliantly entertaining asBalthazar: it’s far the best role in the play, and he makes the most of it. If the rest of the production lived up to the promise of the opening scenes with him, the play would be far closer to success than it is, even with the play’s flaws.

Joan Howard is the other highlight, as the increasingly sympathetic Little Girl Bear: she brings out the essential tenderness of the role, and has one of those voices many actors yearn for: with a beautiful timbre, it carries even at its softest with an enviable crispness, subtlety and clarity.

Unfortunately, the difficult role of The No Child, who has a painfully long scene near the beginning—a scene that, on the evening I attended, the play never entirely recovered from—is overdone by Paul Collins. The director either made a mistake in not reining himin, or encouraged him to roar most of his lines without restraint. But a little shouting goes a long way in the Exit Theater’s intimate space.

The translation has problems. Given the weakness of the play’s structure, it would have helped if the translator had taken more liberties—for example, shortening some of the longer speeches as well as the interminable scene in the Cavern of Plaster Casts, which makes the same point several times more often than is needed. And the repetition of the word “cow” in The No Child’s long speech is certainly a mistake: in French, vache has connotations of humorous affection; in English, calling a woman a “cow” is just an insult,and calling your mother “cow” is both bizarre and offensive. This is a not uncommon problem when translating French into English, when an exact, word-for-word translation, ignoring connotations and context, can end up making the English text say the opposite of the original.

The physical production was all one has come to expect from this talented and adventurous company. The sets were by Noor Adabachi; the lights by Beth Hersh; the costumes by Martha Stookey. The music design, by Dan Cantrell, was a pleasure; one could only wish for more.

Michelle Haner, who directed as well as translated, provided, in most cases, strong direction of a script that does not always make it easy to produce, not infrequently asking the improbable if not the impossible. One stage direction, for example, reads “From the pages of the book, escape a few laughing earthworms,” which is poetic and thought-provoking and funny, but how in the world does one stage it? The director finds the perfect solution.

Christopher Bernard is author of A Spy in the Ruins, Dangerous Stories for Boys and (forthcoming) Voyage to a Phantom City. His play The Beast and Mr. James, about HenryJames and World War I, is currently in development. He is also co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector.