Jordan Harrison, Making Language Necessaryby Deborah Stein
Jordan Harrison is in previews for Doris to Darlene at Playwrights Horizons when we meet in the subterranean tearoom at Takashimaya, the Japanese department store in midtown. Here we are served a wide tray with an assortment of goodies—spiced nuts, vinegared rice with cucumber, dried pears dipped in chocolate. I joke that this tray is like his plays: many different elements arranged discretely and prepared with elaborate care. I think also of visiting his apartment in Minneapolis—each corner and surface displayed small tableaux of books and related ephemera, echoing the excitement of encountering his plays for the first time: we are invited into a series of worlds unlike any we have seen or heard before. As Dorothy says at the end of Act A Lady, “it was art because I went somewhere and I’m still not sure I totally came back.”
Filled with dazzling wordplay, archaic vocabulary, and odd malapropisms, the theatrical worlds of Jordan Harrison lift language off the page and into three-dimensional space, creating a universe that is surreal and sublime, brainy and beautiful—and wholly his own. In Doris to Darlene, record producer Vic Watts asks for not only “a hundred violins,” but also “a millionteen tubas.” In Act A Lady, the word “snood” is repeated (and repeated, and repeated) to great comic effect, while a character asks for coffee “extra black.”
Perhaps because of this verbal bounty, sets for Jordan’s early work often burst with objects and trap doors. In Kid-Simple, Moll navigates shape-shifting trees and wild terrains; in The Museum Play, a bust of Napoleon crosses the stage as if it is the most natural thing in the world. “I summon things because I can,” Jordan tells me. “All I have is a blank page... Then there’s tech, and suddenly things weigh a lot more.”
In his newest plays (both premiering in New York this season), the sets themselves have become the tabula rasas in which theatrical magic unfolds through language. Clubbed Thumb’s upcoming production of Amazons and Their Men occurs on an almost Spartan set of white columns, making use of the extant architecture of the Ohio Theater (a former warehouse). The set for Doris to Darlene is an empty gray box bordered by a series of modern, pink proscenium arches. Describing these productions, Jordan explains how these newest works “require almost a blank canvas…because there is so much descriptive language. The scarcity [of spectacle] is to make us listen, to make the language necessary. If Doris walks into a fully realized hot-pink office, there’s no reason for her to describe it for us.”
Jordan manipulates form to such an extent that it becomes the story itself. Of Describing Kid-Simple, his first full-length, he says, “it takes the audience maybe twenty minutes to learn how to watch this play, to get comfortable—so it seemed to me that a natural way to raise the dramatic stakes is to twist those rules, to make them a little less reliable.” As Moll loses her way, she loses her language as well: she begins to speak in onomatopoeias, her words replaced by sounds and descriptions of sounds. “I didn’t know what to do plot-wise to raise the dramatic stakes…that wasn’t as interesting to me.”
Part I of Finn in the Underworld ends with the teen-aged Finn lying unconscious on the ground; Carver, his lethal lover, tells the audience, “There is no going back.” Indeed, throughout the first part of the play, the walls of the stage have been shrinking until, at this moment, the ceiling hovers just above the actors’ heads. The stage directions declare that the rest of the play “takes place entirely in the shelter, although the characters treat it like a complete universe. I think of Alice’s rabbit hole or C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe: a tiny space that gives way to an alternate world.” The stage has morphed into the site of a terrible family secret, which the characters will relive throughout Part II.
These formal acrobatics ultimately give the plays their emotional heat; the heart of these plays lies in the resonance and friction between the multiple realities: Amazons takes place both “On-Camera” and “Off-Camera”; Act A Lady takes place behind and in front of a red curtain. In Doris, a single melody exists simultaneously in Wagner’s composition, Vic Watts’ wall of sound and Mr. Campani’s high school music lesson.
YOUNG MAN: And as the tide of students carries him to third period, the Young Man turns back and sees: Mr. Campani mouthing the words of the song.
WAGNER: But the song is not only in a classroom with linoleum floors. It is also in the palace of King Ludwig II, where Wagner sings, squinting at his own black markings.
VIC WATTS: It is also on the stereo of Vic Watts, who hears something to plunder in the endlessly thwarted climax of the strings. He takes Wagner’s black markings and adds tom tom drums; he adds a tire chain, for rhythm; he adds four backup singers and he adds/Doris…
To describe these plays as purely formal doesn’t do them justice: the fireworks pack as much heat as an old-fashioned cliffhanger or a kitchen-sink blowout. Take, for example, the moments before the act break in Act A Lady, which begins as a portrait of a group of Midwestern men in 1927 Minnesota performing a French Revolution melodrama (in drag) to raise money for a local school. Near the end of Act I, we get a clue that things are about to take an unexpected turn:
CASPER starts to apply his stage make-up, practicing his lines as GRETA— it seems a comfort to him. Over the course of the monologue, his manner and his make-up evolve until, at the end of the monologue, he is GRETA through and through.
Casper’s transformation is not merely structural, but rather allows the character to discover aspects of himself that he would never be able to while constrained by the reality—and narrative form—of Act I. The second act sees each of the male protagonists inhabiting their female alter egos; this transformation is the playwright’s gift to Casper, and to us.
Generosity is also at the root of Jordan’s use of third person narration in many of his plays. “To me it feels like a little bit of a gift to the character each time they get to speak in the third person,” he explains to me. “We’re very close to them at that point.” While he has employed narrators before, Doris is the first time all of the characters speak in the third person. “There’s a difference between a silence and Doris’ Grandmother speaking the line ‘Grandmother doesn’t say anything.’ That gives it a different weight; it’s a stern act…A silence wouldn’t give us the same information.”
In Amazons and Their Men (a riff on Leni Riefenstahl’s ill-fated film version of Penthisilea), the power of speaking in the third person is a challenge to the audience: we are required to locate the truth between two competing narrations, those of the two sisters who are rivaling for control of the story. As Jordan presents it, “The Frau speaks in the third person when she’s making the movie, and the Extra speaks in the third person when she’s revealing to us the things that didn’t make it into the film: the two men having an affair, the things going on outside the soundstage. It’s a subversive act on her part.”
THE EXTRA: (out) It is my story too. Only she doesn’t know it yet.
When the camera goes off, the star becomes smaller. Mortal. Everyone knows this. But few people know that when the Extra puts down her spear and steps off the sound stage and back into her life, she grows larger. She has a story too.
It is left up to the audience to decipher the truth, which resides somewhere between The Frau’s version and that of The Extra—somewhere between the On-Camera and Off-Camera scenes. Competition for control of the story is the dramatic engine, and is at the heart of the climactic conflict between The Frau (the filmmaker) and The Extra (her sister):
The Extra enters quickly with a newspaper.
THE EXTRA: Sister, read.
THE FRAU: We are filming.
THE EXTRA: (out) Cut!
THE FRAU: I say cut.
THE EXTRA: Read.
Off camera now:
THE FRAU: (seeing the headline) “Germany Invades Poland.”
THE EXTRA: Now you understand?
THE FRAU: Yes.
THE EXTRA: Given the circumstances—
THE FRAU: Yes, the film—
THE EXTRA: No, not/the film—
THE FRAU: The film is more necessary than ever.
THE EXTRA: We are at war—
THE FRAU: The world needs art, especially in wartime. When art fails to make beauty, to help us understand the world—
THE EXTRA: Is that what you do? Help us understand the world?
THE FRAU: I locate perfection and I put it in the center, and anything less stays at the edge of the frame! It’s my job!
If some plays exist more comfortably as literature, and others live most fully as events, Jordan’s plays occupy the space between: through the flesh-and-blood presence of actors, we are taken on flights of fancy that ultimately depend on plain old imagination. The pleasures and challenges are in the tension and ultimate marriage of language and spectacle. “When things are going well for me as a writer, it’s very verbal,” says Jordan. “I’m not seeing images or hearing voices; it’s about the beauty of a sentence.”
Perhaps it is precisely because he is not thinking about setting those words into space, at least not at first, that the plays are such gifts—first to his collaborators, and then to his audiences. For within the sparse environments of his latest works, there is now space for the words to fully live. I’m reminded of the ancient pleasures of storytelling, in which there are no mechanical chandeliers or hydraulic lifts, and instead we are set aloft by the power of language.
Jordan Harrison’s play Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine runs through December 23 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street). Tickets: (212) 279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.org. His play Amazons and Their Men, produced by Clubbed Thumb, runs Jan. 3–26 at the Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street, between Spring and Broome). For tickets and further info: www.clubbedthumb.org or 212-802-8007.
DEBORAH STEIN is a playwright and director based in Los Angeles. With performer-creator Suli Holum, she is Co-Artistic Director of Stein | Holum Projects, a laboratory for interdisciplinary new work. Their play The Wholehearted will be seen in New York at Abrons Arts Center in March 2018.