I had the privilege of seeing The Retreating World as well as the other two “visions” of Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart performed professionally at the Public Theater. The performance knocked my socks off and I remember not wanting to leave the theater space after those feathers were thrown out (see previous post if you’re wondering about the feathers). When I did walk out, I knew in my heart that I had to teach it, even while realizing that more likely than not, for lots of reasons mostly having to do with resources, students would not be able to reach the level of excellence that I saw in the performance at the Public. Still, I was determined that students needed to know of the existence of this monologue, and, if possible, experience it as performer and/or audience. At this point, one or two of you might be puzzled about the direction I am taking in trying to answer the question that I posed in the last post — can theater magic happen in the classroom? After all, in mentioning the excellence of the professional performance, I do seem to be setting things up so that any description of a student performance must pale in comparison. Au contraire. Stick with me for another paragraph or two.
Several students have performed part of this monologue and they usually stick with the beginning portion. My suspicion is that they pick the beginning because the piece starts out quite humorously. After all, Ali has to gradually entice the audience into his world so that it is too late for them to turn back when the piece becomes more harrowing. The student performance I have in mind, however, focused on the intense ending. I think the student selected this part of the monologue because he was an artist, and he was intrigued by the problem of tricking the audience into believing that a pail is filled with bones until the very last minute when what comes out instead is feathers. I might be wrong, but I do not think the student wanted to get into the pathos of the piece nor did he particularly want to get up in front of an audience and deliver a memorized monologue. Indeed, he struggled with the memorization all during rehearsals and I found myself suggesting that he cut more and more out of the piece and just focus on that last action. We both knew that his pail trick was going to rock so I was less concerned with his needing to work on the memorization part. But something magical happened when the student went home to work on the piece and by the time of the performance, the student had decided not to cut but to ADD more of the monologue in, to communicate the PATHOS of the piece to his audience, and to add a few other touches, like creating a bird out of a simple piece of paper, that would help to communicate to his audience that the monologue was also allegory (no small feat in the 21st century allegory-adverse world).
His performance was quite simply FANTASTIC and it was because of the way his voice, gestures and actions carefully built Ali’s story so that when it came time for the pail trick, it resonated powerfully with the audience. I think what I loved most was that the student was able to add his own imprint to Wallace’s monologue play. Remember that this is a monologue in which Ali talks incessantly about birds and pigeons. Well, midway through his performance of Ali’s monologue, the student took up a paper bird that he had created (there is no stage direction for such a paper bird) and cupped it ever so gingerly in his hands. Then he walked to the very front of the stage with that paper bird in his hands, crouched down, held the bird out to the audience for a moment, and…crumpled it in his hands. It was a devastating action and brilliantly captured the anguish behind the allegory of Ali’s story of pigeons (remember the words “a piece of his spine” and what happened to Ali’s best friend, Samir). I know his audience experienced something because I heard them respond audibly with deep intakes of breath. What I remember most about this performance, however, is not the audience’s response or the transformation of bones into feathers or the paper bird crushed between hands. What I remember is how eloquent Naomi Wallace’s words sounded in the mouth and body of the student performer so that I was convinced that I was not watching the student, but rather I was part of Ali’s world. The student’s performance WAS sheer theater magic.