Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brothers in Black Suits: Hamlet and Thom Pain

The last two plays I saw were both one-man shows, and both more interesting examples of the genre than the typical "let me impersonate [insert name of dead celebrity] for two hours" thing. Also, I'm used to seeing one-man shows performed by older actors, probably due to an unspoken assumption that young actors lack the technique and/or the box-office draw to sustain a one-man show, but both these shows were performed by young, boyish-looking men, and both amply proved that they can play in the big leagues.

First, as I alluded to a couple of posts back, I went to see a one-man French adaptation of Hamlet, which sounds like it could be the punchline to a bad joke, but which I actually quite enjoyed. The full title of this show was Hamlet: la fin d'une enfance, meaning Hamlet: the end of a childhood, and the premise of it was that a modern-day young boy, whose mother has recently remarried, refuses to meet his new stepfather and instead locks himself in his room, acting out the story of Hamlet with his toys and bedroom furnishings. The adaptation thus tightly focused on the archetypal family drama of Hamlet's story--lots of prominence given to the scenes with Gertrude and Claudius and the ghost, and a major reduction in Polonius' and Laertes' stage time.

I once took a playwriting workshop with Glen Berger, who said that he tries to reduce every play he writes to a one-word gerund, in order to clarify its subject/theme. He also suggested doing this with other writers' plays. "I've even figured out the one-word gerund for Hamlet," he told us. "Acting." (How marvelously clever and smooth!)

And Hamlet: la fin d'une enfance really made that one-word gerund explicit. Thomas Marceul suggested all of the play's characters using a minimum of props and costume changes. It was pretty stylized: Ophelia was a coyly fluttering fan, Laertes an aggressive red glove, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Lord of the Rings action figures (which is a bit too glamorous for poor R & G, I'm afraid). The best moment came at the very end. Marceul had played the whole show wearing black pants and shirt, which you took to be his "normal" clothes. But when Hamlet died, Marceul peeled off the black shirt, and you realized that this had been just another costume, that Hamlet is just a role, no more "real" than any of the others.

If the one-word, two-meanings gerund of Hamlet is "acting," then the one-word two-meanings gerund of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) is probably "trying." "I am trying. I am a trying man," says Thom at one point. Like Hamlet, he appears before us in a suit of solemn black to grapple with the big questions, including la fin de l'enfance. ("When did your childhood end?" Thom asks the audience.) His hour-long monologue, delivered right up in the audience's faces (sit in the front row...if you can handle it), is one of sardonic petulance, with occasional flashes of the rubbed-raw nerve endings hidden underneath the mask of cynicism.

Better writers than I have tried, and failed, to describe Thom Pain--seriously, I have never read a review of this show that accurately conveys its essence--so I shall not over-dissect it. (Nor does it even really feel right to put it in a box, somehow.) But while the first thing you notice is probably Thom's abrasiveness, it really is a very compassionate play, dealing with subjects like the end of innocence and the loss of love--subjects that for hundreds of years have inspired both sentimental garbage and the most profound expressions of our humanity. Indeed, the play confronts what just might be the biggest question of all, and one I have been pondering recently: none of us ever asked to be born, yet we find ourselves on this earth in a human body, and so, what now...?

I saw Thom Pain in an excellent production at the Cutting Ball Theater, made extra special by the fact that I went to college with Jon Bock, the actor who plays Thom. (He was a year ahead of me.) Jon has a bit of a slippery quality about him, even in real life--it's hard to know what he really thinks of you--which is perfect for Thom Pain. I don't know how he does it every night--to go out and stand in that harsh light and relentlessly harangue the audience for an hour and make them feel guilty if they ever start acting bored or breaking their eye contact with him. I spoke to Jon after the show and said "You're the only thing to look at onstage, so by the end of it, every audience member has got your face memorized--that's gotta feel strange." "Yeah," said Jon, "but you have to realize, I've been looking at all of you for an hour--I try to make eye contact with everyone in the audience at least once--so I've got your faces memorized too."

So, even though Thom Pain is probably judging you with a sneer when he looks you in the eye, at least he's looking at you--and that should make you feel less alone. He's trying; so are we all.

If you're in S.F. I urge you to go see Thom Pain, which has just been extended through mid-April--and I'm not just saying that because I know the actor. Really, I don't think my natural taste in theater even lies with minimalist philosophical monologues--so if I'm telling you to go see one of those, you know it must be something special!


Anushka said...

You have to tell me when you go to all these shows so I can tag along with you and your theater-ific pals!

Marissa said...

I'll try to think of a good show we can see together soon--but first we've got to hit the "Spinning into Butter" movie if it ever plays in S.F.!

Jaime said...

Glen Berger, Thom Pain - two of my favorite things in the world.

Did Glen mention what the gerunds for any of his plays are? (Brilliant to equate Thom Pain & trying.)

And now, it's time for the raffle.

Marissa said...

This was almost 3 years ago so I can't remember everything that Glen said... but I think he said that the gerund for "Great Men of Science" was "striving."

Haha, the funny thing about the performance of "Thom Pain" that I saw is that there actually WAS a raffle, after the show. The theater company wanted audience members to fill out a survey, and if you did they'd put you into a drawing to win a bottle of wine. So the first time that Thom said "Now it's time for the raffle" I think some people must have actually believed him!

alex john said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.