The Unheard of World
Translation by Michelle Haner
|Brian Livingston & Joan Howard|
As first audience members enter, shadowy forms in white, wispy linen wander before and around us with headlights and flashlights, pausing occasionally to confront one of us. Sometimes aimless and sometimes in more coordinated movements nearing a dance, they clang on railings, drum on a small round stage in the center, play on instruments of all sorts (saw, skillet, child’s piano and xylophone, a cello), and at times chant in several solos and at other times, in harmonious eeriness. Clearly we have entered some other realm, namely The Unheard of World by French playwright Fabrice Melquiot as conceived by this foolsFURY Theatre Company premiere of a new translation by Michelle Haner. Finding their way in the opening moments will also be several, aviator-clad raindrops parachuting from some unknown sky of roots and dirt and wondering aloud (along with us) in wonderful and clever chatter where they have landed.
The Netherland in which the raindrops and we find ourselves resembles a modern kid’s playground full of tunnels, nooks and crannies, swings and ropes, and wooden structures that look like a merry-go-round or a pyramid of seats and slides. Thin curtains that flow from unseen breezes and spotlights that come and go like ghostly fireflies enhance its fantastical nature, scenically created by Noor Adabachi. We and the raindrops are soon instructed on blackboard by our host and narrator Balthazar that this afterworld turns out to be in fact right under us in a hollow earth. We are asked to imagine that over 70 billion of the dead-to-date now exist in a cramped and mashed-together mass (as demonstrated briefly by a mound of bodies in front of us). This Balthazar is the self-proclaimed first man, now 200,000 years old, whose remains were not long ago discovered in the depths of Africa. And here is where a major fault of the production lies.
Balthazar is very white, middle-aged, and hipster-looking in his flowing attire and upturned mustache. He is more Marin County than Africa, more modern than ancient. As Balthazar, Brian Livingston is the underworld’s chief curator of “The Great Everything,” a cavern of plaster casts of the first of every aspect of life above the earth’s surface (living, inanimate, catastrophic occurrences, invisible breaths, etc.), and he is our tour guide for the bulk of the evening. However, he never quite establishes who his character really is and what is the framework from which we should view him. At times he a Donald Trump impresario, full of mindless bluster and script delivered as if off a prepared monitor. Other times, he more like a clownish MC from of a children’s Saturday morning TV show here to entertain with his prancing and pranks. Or is he just another lost soul searching for an identity yet to be found through his millennia of death? Maybe he is all or none of these, but this depiction of Balthazar left me wondering and wanting something different from the first human, now chief persona of the after life.
We also meet in this ethereal setting Odessa, a mad woman motherless on earth and still desperate for a baby to love. Deborah Eliezer plays this manic woman who feeds herself fresh manure on a platter, mimicking in coos and a spoon flying through the air how a mother might try to feed a child her food. Much time is devoted to her crazed search in the play’s mid section; and Ms. Eliezer pouts, rants, and cries with much ado. Again, I found myself sometimes scratching my head why her, why I should care, and why play her half-witted to the point of not making lots of sense. In the play’s Second Act, a purpose for her being in the script emerges but only after way too much time to get there.
Where character depictions work much better are in two seven-year-old children who become central to our story and perhaps explain the playground format of this afterlife landscape. Paul Collins is a spastic, stubborn No Child whom we first meet in his mother’s womb where he refuses with furious tantrum to come out until he evidently consumes her in his seventh year, sending him (and probably her) to this next world. With a boy’s one-minded determination and yet curious whim to explore dark spaces like an adventurer, he strikes out to discover how to ensure no one ever remembers him. He is directed to Little Bear Girl (Joan Howard) who exists in eternity as a little girl in tutu, now half-bear, half-child after having been eaten by a mama bear in her last moments on earth. Perched in her special spot, Little Bear Girl in a slow pirouette recites names of souls who have come to her to be forgotten. No Child comes to her to be touched on the forehead and join that anonymous, eternal listing. Their meeting begins a recess of hide and seek, tag, and a childlike discovery of who they are and whom they still might become in this dark world of forms and shadows. Mr. Collins and Ms. Howard effectively capture the childlike innocence and playfulness as these two urchins who also show grown-up sensibility and wisdom in their pursuits of next-world ambitions.
What could help tremendously would be more properties and costume decisions that support the script. No Child struggles in a womb above our heads and then emerges in the underworld embarrassed by and decrying time and again his nakedness. Yet he is fully clothed the entire time in an outfit in no way resembling nakedness. Much is said in the script about roots, upside-down highway signs, and the millions of plaster prototypes; yet we see nothing that might depict any of these. The one, key “plaster” prop that does appear and is central to the climax of the story is a floppy mass of stuffed linen rather something looking like the solid statue it is supposed to be. Just adding a few, simple touches to support the script could have made, in my opinion, the story easier to enjoy and digest.
Our “Unheard World’s” inhabitants are seeking to fulfill missed ambitions and dreams of another life and seem to long for some companionship, even love, that may have escaped them there. Is this a hell of no escape or just a fantastically different, next world where a new kind of life begins? Is it where all are heading, or is it simply one person’s dream we are witnessing? Questions arise as each new specter appears. Answers are up in the air in this very French, whimsical yet sometimes serious examination of how in the next life we perhaps may strive to reproduce glimpses of this life in weird and quirky forms.
There is certainly much potential for this new translation of Monsieur Melquiot’s play and the philosophical musing it engenders, but this production of foolsFURY is a still bit too uneven and under-developed for the full effect.
Rating: 2 E’s
The Unheard of World continues in its foolsFURY Theatre Company production at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco through October 31, 2015. Tickets are available online at http://foolsfury.org/fury/.
Photos by Robbie Sweeny