Modern Geek Theater
By Paul David Young
The Jester of Tonga
By Joseph Silovsky
If there is subgenre called "geek theater" it's
what Joe Silovsky is doing in his one-man, one-robot show The Jester
of Tonga, which recently concluded a short run at P.S. 122. And
I mean this in a kindly way.
In Silovsky's stage presence, the technology
of the production, and content, The Jester of Tonga is thoroughly
and charmingly geeky. It reminds me a lot of the sweet inventions that
my grandfather was always coming up with to entertain us children: constantly
changing dioramas hidden behind an oil painting, a haunted house built
into his attic, an elaborate miniature circus for which he had carved
all the animals.
The difficulty with Silovsky's particular application
of the geek aesthetic is that it ends up being an arid and forgettable
enterprise. He steadfastly refuses to own up to a personal connection
to the material, other than the rather neutral fact, which he finally
mentions halfway through the show, that on his birthday in 2001 he happened
to find an article in The New York Times describing how the
king of Tonga had lost millions of dollars on exotic investments in
the United States. Would it be too much to ask why Silovsky was intrigued
by this material? The connection must have been strong for him to have
pursued the project for seven years, but he never tells us anything
I understand and am sympathetic to Silovsky's
strategy of eliciting myriad narrative strains from his apparently random
find. He does create an interesting, though confusing space in which
to think during his show. During the first half, unless we read the
press release, we don't know why he's telling us any of these stories
or doing a flyby review of the mathematics of viatical valuations. In
the second half, after he belatedly discloses the Tongan news article,
we can begin to construct a mental diagram of the crisscrossing paths.
Some of these relate to Silovsky's pursuit of stories and people at
considerable remove from the Tongan financial disaster. Others are byproducts
of his performance archeology, people and random facts that turned up
over the years of his research. He could, however, have created a vastly
more interesting and layered experience had he been more careful about
his digging -- preserving the images of the objects uncovered, illuminating
their provenance, and probing further at every turn. I'm not asking
for easy answers, or even any answers, but rather greater respect for
his delightful discoveries and for the geeks in his audience who want
to know more about him and the Jester. That's why we came to the theater
in the first place.
Silovsky's self-defeating caution finds its metaphor
when he hides behind a screen for the opening sequence. Attached to
the screen is a hand-painted sign with the title "Jester of Tonga."
Silovsky settles in at a microphone and tells us it's going to be a
long journey, by which he's referring to many things: the travel time
between New York and Tonga, the seven-year duration of the project,
and the layers of information and story that will occupy the evening.
Oddly, despite his reported obsession, Silovsky seems ambivalent about
the task of performing; he holds back, neither showing enough of his
amiably awkward self nor plunging full-on into his material.
As he narrates the opening sequence in his mellifluous
voice, he operates deliberately crude miniatures in a contraption that
works as a kind of projecting light box. During the first journey, a
model plane on a visible wire flies in front of painted clouds. Silovsky
is not interested in stage illusionism, except to provide a good laugh.
The stage is stripped to the walls and loaded with things, each of which
will play some role in what is to come. The undisguised operation of
these contraptions is the great geeky pleasure of his show.
He's soon telling us one of many stories about
outsiders venturing into the Pacific. In this first one, a cut-out boat
runs aground on a Pacific atoll. Paper lightning bolts dart in from
the "sky," visibly manipulated by Silovsky. He produces oral sound effects
as well as the voice-over narration. In this ghastly story, shipwrecked
voyagers consider eating a dead crew member, since they've little other
food. When they valiantly choose to send him off to a sea burial instead,
the deceased is represented by a series of smaller and smaller effigies
that appear in succession as his body floats away.
Silovsky then happily tells us that this story
is irrelevant to the main subject of the evening. During the short set-up
break that follows, we see him scurrying around the stage, dressed in
full geekwear: a "Larry's Steakhouse" t-shirt and jeans and clever eyeglasses.
In what seems at the time to be another irrelevance, he gives a short
lecture on viaticals, a commercial exchange in which the owner of a
life insurance policy sells the benefits to someone else, in effect
placing a bet on when he will die. The seller is typically someone who
has been diagnosed with a fatal disease and wants to cash out on the
policy. An Arizona company called Millennium Art Management packaged
viaticals into securities that it marketed as a mutual fund, Silovsky
explains. Silovsky is endearingly awkward here, seeming to apologize
for the fact that he actually understands the mathematics of how viaticals
are valued and securitized.
But we hardly have time to puzzle over the purpose
of this lecture before he launches into his next sequence, about the
arrival of the man who will become the Jester of Tonga. The arrival
is staged inside a suitcase, which opens to reveal a pop-up diorama
of the main island of Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago. Cameras inside
the case provide live video feed to monitors distributed throughout
the theater. A cut-out boat dances up to the island. Small figures of
islanders wait by the shore. Silovsky pushes a button and the king's
palace pops up. He describes the special gifts the visitor brings to
please the king's peculiar tastes: a clock (the king is obsessed with
time) and a statue of a cowboy (replica of a much larger one that is
visible from an interstate highway in the American West, we're told
in another digression). Some background information on Tonga is offered,
using a large sheet of paper to show what a small island it is in the
middle of the vast Pacific.
Only at this point does Silovsky finally provide
a clue to his fascination with Tonga, belatedly mentioning the Times
article which reported that, under the guidance of someone variously
known as Dean Jesse or the Jester of Tonga, the Tongan government lost
several million dollars by investing in viaticals.
To play the part of the Jester, Silovsky introduces
Stanley, a robot of his own creation, with limited mobility and functionality.
The Jester's recorded voice speaks through Stanley, who moves his arms
and head in a rudimentary facsimile of human behavior, while Silovsky
performs live beside him. This technique of pairing a live performer
with a recorded presence is a staple of The Builders Association, a
group for which Silovsky works. Because of Stanley's technological limitations,
however, he shares many of the same problems as Silovsky on stage. Like
Silovsky, Stanley is only haltingly present.
The Jester's life story is an absurd vortex of
alternative California lifestyles from the 1960s onward. Jesse gets
stoned for ten years straight until he discovers Kundalini yoga, which
unleashes in him the capacity to read minds and costs him two sleepless
weeks. The insomnia ends when he happens upon a roomful of chanting
Buddhists, which somehow leads him to a job in a local bank despite
the fact that he knows nothing about financial services. At the bank
he chances upon the Tongan account. Jesse becomes the Tongan king's
best friend, receives the title "Jester for Life," and serves as the
king's financial advisor, at first preventing financial losses in stock
investments but then losing millions in risky viaticals. This is potentially
fantastic material, but Silovsky lets it fizzle out.
Before we can care about the Jester's life, Silovsky
is off on another digression, telling (with pop-up figures in another
suitcase) how he befriended a local Tongan seaman who took him out dynamite-fishing
and brought him to the island used as Tonga's prison. Silovsky wants
to supply a prisoner with reading material but the only thing Silovsky's
brought with him is a periodical called Nuts and Volts. Later
he sends a pulp novel whose plot Silovsky dutifully summarizes. We hear
of rioting and violence against Tonga's Chinese immigrants and see a
video of Silovsky finally meeting the Jester in a New York diner. Then
it's abruptly over.
I coincidentally saw Mike Daisey's solo show
If You See Something Say Something at Joe's Pub the same week
I saw The Jester of Tonga. The structure of Daisey's show is
like Silovsky's: a weird personal obsession that spawns research and
field trips and strange encounters with oddball people. Admittedly,
Daisey has an entirely different stage persona. He is an old-school
actor, very comfortable on the stage, despite his obesity and incessant
perspiration. Daisey is willing to bellow and roar and he does without
any technology or even movement. He doesn't need it because he has crafted
fine material by asking himself the difficult questions that will make
a room go quiet.
That's just what Silovsky doesn't do: push his
stories until they say something or raise disturbing questions, tie
them to something about himself and hard issues in the world, so we
can understand why he was so attracted to them to begin with. Silovsky
gives us a lot of fun stage puppetry but not enough hardy story-telling.
Forgoing his personal story, Silovsky uses other people's voices but
doesn't let them tell their stories much either. Unlike Daisey, he doesn't
draw them out to investigate the concrete facts that accumulate and
Silovsky's geeky, withholding stage presence
alone, operating his fun mechanical and electronic inventions, has to
carry the performance. I have no doubt that he is capable of forging
a more compelling performance. He is obviously intelligent and genuinely
geeky. He needs to open up and talk to us.