Paola and Christina have arrived just from Sardinia. A Roma. To celebrate the 33rd birthday of Paola, who is dismayed that Christina did not yet “program anything.” This is some of the business we learn as we get accustomed to the strange speech patterns—“I have only the years of Jesus,” Paola rebuts in the midst of a delightfully quirky leg-waxing session after Christina suggests that they are spinsters—emerging from a dorm room at Eliza Bent’s eponymous Hotel Colors just after il mezzogiorno (the noon).
The Hotel Colors is a kind of translation play—not a play that has been performed or published in another language and then translated, but rather a play which could only really exist in the fog between translations, in the lonely adventurous boat of the translator herself. The actors are speaking words in an order alien to them, and our minds are trying to reorder as we follow along, but in doing so we see our native language constructions—and the meanings that we assume them to be communicating—skewed, and thus from new angles.
There is something kind of amazing in the process of learning a language, says playwright Bent, where you’re like “wait a minute, hold up, aspetta un minute (wait a moment!). Yes, we’re translating, but the way we say that is not exactly the same as the way they [Italians]say that, and to like something, as we do in English, is not the same exactly as to have something be pleasing to us, as is done in Italian.”
Consider the confessional realization of Paola, the birthday girl, in a monologic moment of pining for what she isn’t, what she hasn’t: “It displeases me but I am not a Buddhist. The lawn of the neighbor is always more green.” There is something about these expressions that does ring truer. In idiomatic English, we have done away with the neighbor; it is simply the unthinking, unfeeling grass that is always greener. But it is not the grass itself of which we are envious—it is actually of she who tends it.
As the play builds its peculiar bridge between thought and speech in Italian and in English, what could easily be a boring intellectual exercise becomes, by way of the colorful, bridging imagination of Eliza Bent, a kind of giddy surgical excision of what it’s like to have thoughts that jump languages, that divert quickly and effortlessly mid-speech, that are absolutely compelled to divert (listen to Dominican women on the A-train for a sense of this) between the words of one language and the words of another that may better express meaning.
Just after college, Bent spent a year teaching English in Rome, and the language play in la sua commedia nuova seems to have grown out of her experience of coming home. “When I came back to the States I had to suppress this urge in myself, this Italian urge, that I couldn’t just pepper my speech with va bene! (okay, it goes okay). And I think people feel this way a lot. When somebody comes back from France, or Malawi, they all have this. It’s hard to do [to give in to the other language urge] without becoming a pretentious monster.”
Or, one might say, it feels strange when your lexicon includes words that are stranieri (foreigners) to the lexicon of your close compatriots.
In a sense, The Hotel Colors is Bent’s own inventive and balletic coping mechanism, a way of honoring her urge to va bene! while sidestepping the puddles of pretentious monsterdom. This becomes possible because the play manages to convey what it’s like to have this almost automatic comparative faculty, the dexterity, the excitement, the joyful surprises it can present, but also the sudden choices and confusion, and it manages to do so without excluding. Context clues or strange structures initiate us collectively into the deepening experience in borrowing words from other languages that have no match in English. “You can get closer to true expression the more language business you know,” Bent says.
There is also simply the freedom of entering a language that is not your own, the Halloween-like possibility of expressing yourself in a way you wouldn’t necessarily in your own. “I was talking to someone the other day about the play,” Bent explains, “and in Arabic when you’re so über super-duper thankful you say something, barakallahu feek (God bless you). I probably would never say God bless you to someone in English, but I found myself using it a fair amount when I was in Tunisia. I like the way it sounds. The emphatic-ness of it.”
And then there are the fun parts of playing in another language. Adding the article “the” to the time, for instance—as in “we will depart for dinner at the eight,” and “we will eat at the 8:30”—or to third person characters. To Bent, “There is something so lovely about when someone becomes a little object, like la Victoria, the Uncle Carlo.” To me too, though I can’t quite make sense of why. But enjoying and not making sense is a big part of the world of the play. There are jokes that resonate in a particular way if you do know some Italian, because of slang or idiomatic connotation, but if you don’t know any Italian they will likely still cause you to laugh, to smile, or to cringe, because of their utter strangeness.
By way of, and also beyond, the fun of its serious game of linguistic Twister, The Hotel Colors is an homage to travel, to the excitement of new culture absorption, of new culture mimicry and the way that somehow, after a while, becomes the real. It’s how the way they say it, the way they do it is actually righter and better, more true to the thing being said and done than the way you (your own culture or language) say or do it. It’s about the urge to abandon the old and embrace the new, about the mix-ups that come in the in-between, but also about the liberating atmosphere of the in-between.
Because people are traveling, because the walls of normality and the quotidian are down, we get some drama. From amidst the language games, a gentle narrative emerges, a narrative of people who are looking for some fun, some connection, some something. There is the birthday, there is a homecoming, a bit of quick romance, of recounting of close encounters of the disturbing public transportation kind. There are the exasperated phone calls to parents at home, small scandals, strange songs, the kind of ironic and uncertain longing that for those of us who have come to know Bent through her Half-Straddle performances will resonate, reverberate, somehow feel on the same continuum.
But this time Bent is the curator of the conversation, and we are traveling not to an ice floe or an island or another riff on a place, but to a real place, a hostel in Rome, a budget travel way station—the kind of place that is familiar, or will be familiar to many. And so will the interactions. “There is something very magical when you travel, especially in this ramshackle way that people do, when somebody reveals something to you, or you to somebody. It’s amazing how a stranger can observe something about your life or make some insight about you that suddenly crystallizes something for you. Never mind that your mother made the same observation last week. When a fellow voyager makes that remark halfway around the globe it resonates in a different way.”
The Hotel Colors, written by Eliza Bent, directed by Anna Brenner, runs May 8 – 25 at 8 p.m., Wednesdays – Saturdays, at the Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street, Brooklyn). Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com. For more info about the show and special events, visit: www.thebushwickstarr.org or http://thehotelcolorsplay.wordpress.com/
BEN GASSMAN is a playwright from Queens.