Tuesday, August 4, 2009

sketches on B Walker Sampson's "Assistance"

(We presented B Walker Sampson’s Assistance as part of our Spring Reading Series in March 2009. It's a favorite of a few of us, and one of the productions we'd like to eventually stage. Below are the program notes.)

A synopsis (of sorts) of Assistance
After the close of business on the 76th story of an office building in New York or an island north of Siberia (no one is quite sure), assistants meander through the wee hours of the morning until the head of the company—until tonight, a figure of myth—makes him or herself known.
About the Playwright
B. Walker Sampson’s play Puppet Kafka will premiered this Spring at the HERE Arts Center, produced by Drama of Works. His other plays include: Silent Steps: A Play with MacGuffins (Outsider’s Inn Collective); Absence of a House (Double Take Theatre); What Do You Think of the Moon? (Audacity Theatre Lab’s “Eye in the Sky” radio theatre project); and Roosevelt Island (BRIC Studio; HERE Art Center’s American Living Room Festival). His play Alceste was part of Soho Rep’s 2004/05 Writer/Director Lab reading series, and additionally his plays have been read at the Playwrights’ Center, Theatre of NOTE, Manhattan Theatre Source, and the Flea Theater. His plays, poetry, and articles have been published in Midway Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Brooklyn Review, Stirring, and American Theatre. He received his MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College, where he studied with Mac Wellman.

Sketches on Assistance
The less you struggle, the less it will hurt.

While no character explicitly says these words, it’s a major thrust behind B Walker Sampson’s Assistance. As outlined below, Sampson echoes Harold Pinter in taking a concept that would seem innocuous when expressed by a figure of authority in one context, and turns it into a thinly veiled threat.

Most people are no stranger to the anxiety, awkwardness, and fear that accompanies one’s first day at a new job. That’s to be expected. But what if the parameters of that job where changed; what if the moment you sat in your new cubicle, dismemberment and torture were de rigeur, and the laws of physics no longer applied?

Sketched out below are some elements of the playwright’s piece that struck our fancy for more detailed examination. It’s also perfectly acceptable to slap this pamphlet shut and simply listen to this hilarious and terrifying piece.

Either way, the less you struggle, the less it will hurt.

B Walker Sampson’s Assistance exploits wholeheartedly theater’s potential for spectacle. Just as the cubicle farm rotates over the course of this play, there are various lenses through which one could view Assistance—like a rotating display for greeting cards. We’ll try, briefly, to outline a few of them in one cursory spin.

The rotating set
The spinning cubicles of Sampson’s world create an environment completely out of balance. The audience is denied their customary comfort, that of a stationary unit set through which characters move.

This is particularly disturbing as the world of Assistance is that of shifting rules and assumptions. Lemple’s coup d’etat under these circumstances is not only to be expected, it is inevitable.

Sampson’s language, while heightened, is not loaded for the performers. And while the situations are reminiscent of Pinter’s comedies of malice (more on that below), what distinguishes the playwright from his forebear is while Pinter’s menace was lurking very close to the surface, Sampson’s language conceals the iron fist beneath more layers of silk. But unlike Pinter’s plays, which sometimes include the disintegration of language, in Assistance we witness instead the construction of an alternate language and vocabulary.

A delightful idiosyncrasy of Sampson’s text is, for lack of a better term, optional coherence on the part of his characters.

Playwright Wendy MacLeod ("Schoolgirl Figure," "House of Yes") has spoken of the indicators of a good playwright. In her estimation, one such indicator was the presence of secret language—a language with its own internal logic: while not important for an audience to understand every meaning to a line of dialogue, it’s sufficient that the audience recognize the language as uniquely weighted between the characters, even if the underlying meaning is obscure. This is a sentiment echoed by Brecht:
Incorrectness, of considerable improbability even, was hardly or not at all disturbing, so long as the incorrectness had a certain consistency and the improbability remained of a constant kind. All that mattered was the illusion of compelling momentum in the story told, and this was created by all sorts of poetic and theatrical means. (emphasis added) [Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (Willett, John, ed.). New York: Hill and Wang, 1957, p. 182.]
Sampson has taken this to its extreme: characters (Bolen more often than his colleagues) express themselves in ways that are obscure to everyone but themselves—and are comfortable living in this vacuum: it is the expression of language, as opposed to its comprehension or veracity, that cements one’s existence.

The setting of the action does not change from the cubicle farm (even as its location does; see below). It thus falls on the characters to create the world beyond the office, or to at least carve out a niche they control within it.

Selby, the only character free (it would seem) to leave the cubicle farm, obscures her identity upon her return; her presence allows for some autonomy from the farm’s rules.

Lemple alludes to the man tied in her kitchen; while the shades and significance of this illustrative story shift depending upon what light you choose to view the play (see below), this narrative becomes significant when she ultimately re-creates the scene with Metz.

Bolen has no world beyond the cubicle farm, and therefore re-writes his present to exert some form of control. It is a childish idea of control, steeped in upending the chessboard in order to see the pieces bounce. Bolen’s kingdom does not extend past the reach of his arm; his efforts to maintain control over that kingdom seem, when placed in a larger context, quite mad: King Bolen in the valley of the (imaginary) dolls.

Metz’s storytelling (Metz / Zzzzzz is a name, a bodiless force of authority, a sound of menace [the worker bee, the stinger bee]) is particularly iconic of Sampson’s work: his tense is not present, but conditional:
METZ: What if I sat here all the time? What if this was my station up here? I could be well-positioned. I would be watching over you. I would never move. My ass would ossify, in this chair. I would never move. You would never move. We would be so still and so busy and would be a picture of productivity. (Pause.) Though I would take naps. I would allow some slumber for myself. As my miscellany man, you would monitor my dreams and make power-point presentations out of them set to a 1970s French electronic symphonic soundtrack.
He is assessing the potential impact of these actions as he does them. Is this an escalation of his power, a la comedy of malice, (see below)? Or is he working to opposite effect, undermining his authority by questioning it (not “I am,” but “what if?”)?

It is only in the surest of hands that a character’s words so fully underscore and undermine their position simultaneously.

Aural, visual, and elements of technique that will shape the play you are about to see:

(1) The ringing phone
In working to alienate the audience—to make the familiar unfamiliar [Brecht: “A representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.”]—the ringing phone is the starkest example of Sampson’s effort.

Through its ubiquity, the unanswered telephone’s kinetic tension is often overlooked. A ringing telephone—white noise in an office environment—is nevertheless pregnant with possibility: a summons, a plea for help, pending devastating news.

(2) The clocks
By prominently displaying multiple time zones, Sampson neatly juxtaposes the simultaneous rigidity and fluidity of the human perception of time.

The clocks corresponding to foreign locations are essential because there are foreign locations, but they are simultaneously insignificant to the characters because those locations are not present.

This paradox tidily folds in on itself when Lemple, as a coup de grace on her coup d’etat, transports them, through simultaneous manipulation of all three clocks, to Faddevskij. In one fell swoop, there becomes here.

(3) Alienation
SELBY: Once you’ve decided what kind of person you are, your skills will develop accordingly.
BOLEN: And what have you decided?
SELBY: Perhaps if I had been...
What was I was going to say?
BOLEN: Something sentimental.
SELBY: If it was sentimental, I would cherish it. Having once had promise—or the thought that I once had promise, even if or especially if that thought is mis...miss...a mistake, then. It’s not something I feel fondly about. It only causes me pain.
In his Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht consistently aspires to maintain a distance between the performer and the role being performed; at no point should there be any illusion or confusion as to where the performer ends and character begins.

Sampson expands upon this approach by writing this distance into the characters’ language, wherein they maintain a distance from their own words. At various moments the characters seem to maintain running commentaries on their own words, to striking effect.

Prisms of Analysis
Absent a specific performance or determination of approach, Sampson’s text is wonderfully protean, accommodating various approaches—approaches that are sometimes mutually exclusive.

Assistance as Office Farce (Comedy of Manners) Taking a certain view (perhaps with the head tilted to the side, one eye squeezed shut), Assistance is a delightfully naughty office romp, placed within the context of a situation that is both absurd and all-too-familiar. Haven’t we all worked with a Bolen, the colleague who pops up above the dividing wall that demarcates our rather porous privacy and over-shares, oversteps bounds, overstays his welcome? And yet he has survived in this environment longer than anyone else, in spite of how ill-suited he seems for the simplest social interaction in the outside world. Since we’re not Lemple, we can laugh at her plight—because we’ve been trapped there before ourselves.

(In this prism, Lemple’s man tied in the house is a setpiece in a comedy of manners: any audience member acquainted with mind-numbing sexual harassment workshops will recognize this story as wildly inappropriate, even as Lemple thinks it might be appropriate, given Bolen’s wood and obsession with Selby. The absurdity emerges through her fundamental misunderstanding of the norms of this world, on display as starkly as a nudist at a Victorian tea party.)

Assistance as Pinteresque Mindf*ck (Comedy of Malice)
Sampson’s work is very clearly written in the same vein as Pinter’s comedy of malice, among which the slightly sinister sexual references, the baldly malicious upending of just-established truths, and nods to a quite possibly apocalyptic outside world (pace Beckett) are only a few of the shared elements.

Metz is the clearest embodiment of malice. He is Nick, the interrogator of One for the Road, he is Goldberg of The Birthday Party, and the uniformed thugs of Mountain Language. Metz’s refusal to say Bolen’s name, but merely to mouth it, is a gut-punch to witness.

(In this prism, Lemple’s man tied in the house is powerful not because of its veracity, which cannot be definitively confirmed, but in why Lemple chooses to tell it. By creating a reality in which she keeps a weeping man tied up about the neck in her kitchen, she creates a self that is powerful. The fact that she re-creates the scenario with Metz, would, however, lend credence to the story: the audience sees that she is certainly capable of such things.)

Assistance as Artaud (Theater of Cruelty)
The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid. [Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty, in The Theory of the Modern Stage (ed. Eric Bentley), New York: Penguin, 1968, p.66.]
The white slides are a kind of moral purity, the relocation to Faddevskij a violent rebirth, the dogless collar is an image irrevocably connected to Lemple’s man in the kitchen. Together these things make Assistance a Magritte painting with the breath of life—albeit the breath of a pervert at the other end of a telephone.

(In this prism, Lemple’s man tied in the house is important more for the image it creates in the minds of her listeners than because she says it. A bald, naked man eating food like a dog is as important a stage picture as the rotating cubicles, because of its potential to illuminate through alienation [pace Brecht].)

A Belly Flop in the Minefield
A tug of war between comedy and violence, coherence and anarchy, runs throughout Assistance’s pages.

Buffeted on all sides by changing rules, upended hierarchy, it might be temping for the onlooker to keep his head down and avoid any conflict—indeed, any contact.

Sadly, that’s the surest recipe to lose control, only to regain consciousness tied to a chair with a ball gag jammed in one’s mouth.

No comments:

Post a Comment