MAC WELLMAN Explains, Or Doesnt Explain, What Is Near And What Is Farby Trish Harnetiaux and Matthew Korahais
That we know a thing means simply that the self coincides with the thing. In seeing a flower, the self becomes that flower. To study a flower and illumine its nature means letting go of subjective conjecture to coincide with the nature of that flower.
(Cited in the opening of 3 2’s, or AFAR by Mac Wellman)
Mac Wellman drinks Amstel Light because, in his words, it’s “the best light beer.” He’s less choosy about the tequila—neat—that accompanies it, demanding only that it’s present. When we were compiling questions to ask Wellman about his new play opening at Dixon Place in October, there was a certain fear that he would answer none of them. So, we thought it best to meet somewhere over a few drinks. We could hear his non-sequiturs making fun of our questions—
Us: How do you get your ideas for your plays?
Him: Food poisoning.
—and had braced ourselves for an article full of very strange, but entertaining, fragments of thought and deception; a Park Slope Mad Lib, if you will. But of course, the many sides of Mac Wellman never cease to impress, and as we sat over late afternoon drinks at Great Lakes, his playful sense of life’s absurdities ever present, he spoke as clearly and sharply about his new play and the production as would be expected from any “normal” playwright.
Two years ago Dixon Place commissioned him to write a new play. It took Wellman a while to figure out what he wanted to write about; since he knew the space it was to be performed in—the new theater at Dixon Place—it affected how his story would be told. “More and more I think all theater is site-specific,” he explains. “When plays work, they work in the space.” He cites a commission he received years ago from Louisville as an example. He went down to look at spaces and ended up choosing a big, ugly theater from the ’70s that was in the round. Thinking it was horrible, he decided to write a play for it. “It’s called The Allegory of Whiteness,” he tells us. “Everybody in the play is white and all they think about is being white. Except there’s a dwarf and he comes out cursing, ‘ah fuck you.’ ”
Wellman’s new play 3 2’s, or AFAR lacks cursing dwarves, but takes place in a haunted puppet theater “like Dixon Place, but not Dixon Place,” according to Wellman. His script is a meditation on Heidegger’s Dialogue on Language Between a Japanese and an Inquirer. The Japanese philosopher in the dialogue, named Kuki Shūzō, spoke and wrote about iki, the concept of coquetry which influences Japanese culture on many things from architecture to the clothing of geishas. “It’s basically teasing, like parallel lines that never meet,” Wellman says. “It’s not about consummating anything, it’s about always maintaining that type of tension.”
In the Dialogue, Heidegger misunderstands iki, mistaking it for an abstract concept rather than a concrete element of design. Heidegger and Kuki then discuss the pitfalls of language itself, how language falls short of creating understanding, and how using the wrong language can stop dialogue short. “There’s a lot of talk about what is near and what is far. What is before, and what is after … There’s a lot of talk of that danger, and so I got interested in danger,” Wellman says. This danger informs everything in the play, and makes for a theatrical world not bent on a predictable experience. “For this play, I always want it to be surprising. You expect something there [Points somewhere.] and something happens over there.” [Points somewhere else.]
And there is danger for the actors and director. In the script itself, there are no character names. Wellman didn’t feel it necessary to pin down who says what ahead of time; he’d rather discover in rehearsal which lines belong to whom. Room is left for the possibility that a character may answer their own question, which is “how people talk in real life,” Wellman is quick to remind us.
Director Meghan Finn admits that this has made way for “a lot of blood and missing teeth.” But she’s quick to praise the patient, talented cast. “I put it out to them at the beginning that we would be finding the play together,” she says. “And the breaking up of the text has come through much trial and error. I hope that ultimately everyone in the cast has been able to see why we’ve come to the choices we have about who says what. It has been part of the fun/terror of the doing this play.”
The same goes with the stage directions. Some are spoken; some are not. Which raises the question in rehearsal: if the stage direction is spoken, then what is the action? “That’s something I’m really interested in,” Wellman notes. “I like it when people talk about what’s going on in a play. Sometimes it’s more interesting than trying to enact everything.”
Much of the play is movement, and Asian dance, creating a sort of “fake Japanese play,” as Wellman describes it. One song, he gleefully tells us, is called “The Devil’s Butthole.” Huh? Yep. Just wait.
Japanese and German philosophy is nice, but sometimes (usually) inspiration just comes from seeing a girl in a diner. “The play starts with something that actually happened to me,” Wellman confides. “I used to go to this Greek diner on 4th street, and I’d have breakfast, and this really pretty young woman would come in, like a lot, and I picked up that she worked at the puppet theater here on 4th street. I thought, well, I should tell her I write plays. And then I thought I might appear to be some kind of crank older man. But that’s actually how the play begins. A character in the play says, ‘Pardon me, young lady.’”
The puppet theater where 3 2’s takes place completely reconfigures Dixon Place. The design turns the space around, changing where the audience and playing space usually are. This upsets whatever balance had settled into the room and brings a fresh energy to the space. Frequent Wellman collaborator, set designer Kyle Chepulis, has his work cut out for him because Wellman’s also been thinking a lot about Rube Goldberg machines. If there was an unlimited budget on this production, the entire theatre might become one. Wellman speaks of a certain vision of having a bowling ball rolling around the space, under the seats, around the perimeter—it’s unclear how this would have/might/will fit into the final set, but it’s definitely part of the design concept (at least the one in Wellman’s head).
But don’t go to 3 2’s looking for puppets everywhere. There are no puppets in this haunted puppet theater. There are, however, many, many boots and shoes. Or maybe there is just Boot and Shoe. Like many things, it is not entirely clear. “Well, the boot and shoe are moved as though they were puppets. Very stupidly though,” he says. “I collected them off the street, there are a lot of them on the street. I actually found some nice boots that I’m going to keep.”
3 2’s, or AFAR by Mac Wellman, directed by Meghan Finn, produced by Leslie Strongwater, plays at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie Street, Manhattan) Thursdays – Saturdays, October 6 – 8, 13 – 15, 20 – 22, 27 – 29 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 (advance); $18 (door) at www.dixonplace.org.
Excerpt from 3 2’s, or AFAR by Mac Wellman:
You know what they found in the basement of this place when they were making it into a theater?
Silence. Silence. Pause in which we see both SHOE and BOOT listening attentively but also still trying to be inconspicuous.
: No, no I don’t.
: Well I can’t bring myself to describe it, but it was horrible.
A Something/Nothing person (a FACE) bestows a tiny vase with a single purple flower in it to one of the two, but because of the difficulty of deciding which of the two, this may take some time.
Perhaps no flower and vase are bestowed at all, perhaps one only sees it there for the first time as a sort of replacement for the one that was broken.
After a moment an acknowledgment must be, is, made, even and especially if no vase has been bestowed, but only unconcealed someplace off in the distance, afar, where we would not expect to find it.
One of the two attempts to speak, but is unable.
THE DEVIL’S BUTTHOLE
All the 3 2’s sing loud:
Ever the where I do go go
Divell’s old butt hole ohah!
Up on the tippy top the tree
When I am so soundish slip
Devil’s butt hole of him alone
Round ze corner morning light
That old devil’s butt hole blat
In my hopes and in my hops
Old devil ze devil you know what
In the store and on that shelf
Old old devil’s butt hole ohah!
On the tittivsion and twitter tweet
Oldy wham of devil butt bam
On stage and screen and ze silky filum
Old devil’s butt hole Hey all thee
O from all the way to all the way
And in the newspaper Fit to Print hey
Big void ugly devil his WHOLE butt
Hole, hole, hole, hole, hole, hole, hole.
: Oh, electric wires overhead, tell me —
Oh, electric wires in my head, make
Me say and tell me true
What you say within the rule of law.
Oh electric wires I hear security;
I feel security.
I walk on security
I sense security
All the hours of my day …
[Whispers: (Even in the devil’s butt hole)]