…when you were out there in the desert did you ever imagine yourself as a Cossack on a white horse?
No. I imagined myself as a grunt sweating his ass off in the desert.
Lack of imagination killed the kings.
The kings aren’t the ones who get killed.
Gary Winter began his play, Cooler, during the Bush years. Writing from a sense of despair as those years progressed, watching protests of the Iraq war go un-remarked by the media, the war unfolding and the subsequent revelations of torture—which journalists balked from naming. Winter wrote in response to his feeling of a “chilling” effect, the increased sense of caution that pervaded journalism and those in government. The play that results is a fittingly surreal work. It plays with language, throws off traditional narrative and follows each character’s response to the specific reality they inhabit.
From the press release,
Cooler is an abstract play about a group of people who live in a cooler under a mysterious but palpable oppressive force. Their language has been warped and the rules of their society have been confused, and they struggle to reconcile their desires and impulses with the chilling environment they find themselves in.
Throughout the play characters reach for some sort of past, another time. At one point, seeking a radio station, landing on several varieties of static and determining one to listen to,
You like this garbage?
Brings back the old days.
When things were smoother.
We’re smooth now.
As long as no one makes a ripple. That’s the deal we make.
Director Dylan McCullough and Winter both refer to it as a false nostalgia that the characters live within, a sort of alternate reality. Within this space, things from the ordinary world are referenced, particularly Kant, Cher, and The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov, but are often skewed, or misunderstood, just slightly—as if the characters got their information from poorly researched sources. Or, as Winter points out, from a world where facts no longer matter.
Ivan opens a dictionary and Andrea takes up her sewing. She is sewing something that couldn’t possibly fit on any body part known to man.
(reading from dictionary)
You can’t learn anything that way, Ivan.
Make things less clear.
Ivan flips through the pages.
Words ain’t no use no more my dear Ivan. It’s all made up these days.
Soothing to the mind or feelings.
Definitions are useless around here.
Might as well burn that book, Ivan dear. You’re just torturing yourself.
Winter offers this quote, attributed to a senior level official in the Bush White House as reported by Ron Suskind in the New York Times: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Though, as Winter says, “I always intended it to be broader,” and producing the play now, post-Bush, sets it free from any particular moment in history and allows the play to take on its own life.
While the play’s initial impulse is the Bush years, there are other strands of influence woven throughout the text. Winter was inspired by a trip he took to Warsaw, Poland where his mother’s family is from. The eerie quality of a city that re-built itself to erase the space where Jews were taken from their homes, sent to camps and murdered in the millions gave him the sense of walking in a place where the dead are alive. A sense that rang particularly clearly when he visited the concentration camps and when he spoke to Jews living currently in Poland who spoke about having to choose identities, feeling that they could be Jewish or Polish but not both. This notion of people between two worlds, between identities, between living and dying, between idealism and hopelessness caught in Winter’s head and permeates the play. A short story by Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under The Sign of the Hourglass is set in this sort of in-between world. Winter borrows imagery and narrative from the story and embeds them into his play by building a character from its pieces.
The notion of false nostalgia that permeates the play suggests the potential danger of the stories that we tell ourselves about war and about national identity. One of the residents of the cooler, Jack, is a soldier returned home from service in an un-named war. He has been subjected to some type of torture and is working in a menial job as a zoo-keeper. Towards the end of the second act he is asked how he survived. He responds,
I imagined the homecoming. The parade with streamers and confetti flying around me. And Welcome Home signs. And my beautiful fiancée by my side. My arm in a sling and a clean white bandage around my head. I am healing. I am a man humbled by war, knowledgeable about terrible things. A table would always be reserved for me at the local diner.
They’d never charge me for a meal. The old war vets would pat me on the back knowingly as I left the diner.
I’d teach in the local high school and, more important, never feel guilty about anything again in my life. I have been absolved and I can get away with more fucked up things then the average person because I was just made a saint. What did I imagine while my balls were being electrified? After I screamed for mercy?
I imagined this. This paradise.
And later he relates that what he missed most of all was the television shows. Followed by a virtuosic list of stock narratives that covers pretty much every popular American show and movie ever made. These stories though do not bring the relief or provide the scaffold of belief that Jack is seeking now, after his experiences at war. He now figures that Grand Guignol is probably the best bet,
If you search hard enough you will find the certain glitches in history. Where improbable solutions are found. Accidentally, perhaps, but nevertheless, ingenious.
This, this Guignol, live slasher films on stage.
The people who went, kids in tow, who saw it…got their fill…sure the kids were traumatized…but…all for the better…I mean, who would want to come home after that and start a war, let alone a domestic squabble?
Jack is unique among the characters in that he alludes to a job, a position in the world outside, while the other three seem to have withdrawn permanently. Andrea, Ivan, and Pearl each clutch onto their own stories: Andrea, listening for her father between the worlds—echoing the Schulz narrative; Ivan alluding to a past as a Russian Cowboy; and Pearl transforming herself into Cher—idealistic Cher, before the commercial version of the celebrity took over.
The physical world of the cooler is minimally described in Winter’s text and director, McCullough, approached the creation of this space as an installation. The Chocolate Factory, where the show is being presented, is ideal for this type of scenic transformation. With a design inspired by the idea of false nostalgia and the character’s grasping for concrete reference points to bring comfort or make sense of things, the stage will be overstuffed with objects, precious artifacts specific to each character’s dreams and longings. Working with Benjamin Kato (Scenic and Lighting design), Alixandra Englund (Costume design) and Hillary Charnas (Sound design), McCullough sought to create an experience that incorporates the audience, including the spectators within the space inhabited by the characters.
The design will be fluid, changing from night to night, so that as the actors create their performance, aspects of the design will also be created live. Costume, sound, and lighting choices will be made in concert with the unfolding play. McCullough is a member of Wingspace, a collective dedicated to pushing the boundaries of contemporary theatrical design, and with this project McCullough’s attention has been on integrating all elements of the theatrical event. “The text is always the constant, unchangeable,” he explains, “but ‘unfreezing’ the design allows for greater possibilities to be explored and enables the design to react to the actors and vise versa, creating a more direct line of communication between the two. For me, this more holistically embraces the ephemeral quality of theater.” He also alludes to a major shift, a secret designed to transport the audience as the play’s reality splits open in the second half.
Abrupt shifts occur throughout the play. The interactions between the characters are assembled in a collage-like structure, they jut up against each other. Individual concerns are pursued. Notions of where the human impulse towards self-destruction emanate from are posited and uniquely tested in a curious experiment involving rhinos and mirrors (the results are tragic). Words are manipulated and identities assumed and discarded. Winter talks about the loss of idealism, the question of what happens when people give up their idealism, and director McCullough poses the related question of how do you get back to what you believe? These two concerns overlap within the play and combine with robust design elements to create that disorienting theatrical space where the audience can be alerted to a different way of seeing, an attempt to wrestle with the indescribable.¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
Cooler, by Gary Winter, runs at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City April 9-24. For tickets and more info, visit www.chocolatefactorytheater.org
Kristen Palmer is a playwright and teacher currently living in Eastern CT. Her plays include Local Story, Departures, The Melting Point, And The Heart In Your Chest.