Mercedes Murphy, founder of the Williamsburg-based Théâtre Trouvé, appears to be of the same school as French director and theater philosopher Antonin Artaud: she seeks to create art that will jolt spectators out of complacency and numbness and into contact with what is essentially true, painful, and universal in the human experience. It is an ambitious vision, and one that is only realized in fits and spurts in her latest work, Broken Window, a six-episode piece that is currently being performed in an old suit factory in East Williamsburg. (Each episode will be performed only once, on Monday evenings over the course of a ten-week period.)
At the heart of the piece is the Demeter myth, in which a distraught mother roams the earth in search of her missing daughter, Persephone, who has been abducted by the king of the Underworld. It is not the story that drives the action here, however, so much as the emotional and psychological forces at work within the myth: loss, longing, betrayal, love, lust and the delicate chains that bind mothers and daughters, the old and the young, the dead and the living, the one who leaves and the one who is left, the pursuer and the object of desire.
Demeter herself is all but absent from Broken Window (or at least from Episode 2—Murphy claims she will make an appearance later on). Instead, there is a series of deeply haunted and haunting characters culled from the pages of Samuel Beckett’s plays and reinterpreted by Murphy and her highly talented company of actors. Characters such as Winnie from Happy Days, May and Mrs. Winter from Footfalls (stand-ins, perhaps, for Persephone and Demeter), and Joe and the Girl in the Lavender Slip from Eh, Joe make appearances here in altered states. Instead of lines from Beckett plays, they speak a kind of bastardized Beckett, by way of Murphy’s cutting, pasting, and reimagining of the originals. The script of Broken Window is a combination of this and other variations on “found” text (sources include Marcel Proust, poet Henry Vaughan, and songstress Cat Power), with some language of Murphy’s own thrown into the mix. The effect is a disorienting sense that Beckett’s characters have stepped out of their own plays, and met here in this kind of theatrical purgatory, a world that Artaud might have described as existing somewhere “between dreams and events.”
Episode 2 proceeds like an elaborate ballet: actors appear onstage in solos, duets, and what one might call “company numbers,” and engage in intense physical and emotional confrontations with each other—some humorous, some grotesque, some actually consisting of song and dance, but all of them mysterious and surprising.
The less compelling sequences are the more abstract: Mrs. Winter (Georgia Hatzis) is bound to the back wall by a long rope tied in a noose around her neck while her daughter, May (Frances Chewning), traverses the front of the stage in a zombie-like trance. While we glean from their dialogue that they are mother and daughter, the rest is nearly incomprehensible. A much more successful scene is a monologue by Dan Domingues in which he plays a man standing on a ledge contemplating suicide and reflecting poignantly on the moments that have comprised his tenuous existence. At another point, when the stage is transformed into a giant bed, and all the women in the play emerge in silk negligées and do a kind of Busby Berkeley routine (think synchronized cuddling), the audience is cheerfully perplexed, and willing to go along for the ride.
This feast of Beckettian strangeness is played out against the backdrop of a stark white stage and a few elegantly crafted set pieces, and the visual spectacle is exciting even when the content fails to resonate. But the real marvel of Broken Window is its cast of ten creative and spirited performers: when the text is flimsy and the meaning obscure, they still manage to conjure deeply felt emotions. Within the first twenty seconds of Episode 2, Winnie (Danielle Fink) was crying real tears. Later, the passion between Tug Coker and Sarah Douglas was moving, even if their words drifted into the air along with the smoke from Douglas’s cigarette. Every one of the actors seemed committed to an emotional reality whose substance was only occasionally revealed to the audience, but whose truth was confirmed again and again by the gestures, facial expressions, and body language of the tortured characters that moved through the play.
For this alone, the work of Théâtre Trouvé would be heralded by Artaud, who claimed that “the theatre, far from copying life, [should put] itself in communication with pure forces.” Whether your taste in theater runs to the experimental or not, it is hard to deny that Murphy and her wild-eyed actors have tapped into some powerful forces in Broken Window. Nor should you underestimate their bravery in trying to create new work that is visually fresh and emotionally gripping. But if you want to preserve your admiration, you would probably do best to stop short of trying to figure out what it all means.
Théâtre Trouvé’s Broken Window will be performed on Mondays, November 1, 8 & 15 at 9pm. Tickets: $15, theatermania.com, or call 212-352-3101.
Location: 245 Varet Street, Williamsburg (Brooklyn). Take the L Train to the Morgan stop. From Morgan Street make a right on Thames, a left on Bogart, and then a right on Varet. OR: At the station exit, meet “the girl in the green coat” and she will lead the way.
Pamela Newton is a writer based in Park Slope.