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Odysseys in America
By Martin Harries

 

 

What Ever
By Heather Woodbury
P.S. 122
150 1st Ave.

Box Office: (212) 477-5288

 

 

 

"Long ago, in the early 1990s" to quote the play at hand -- I was teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream and joked offhandedly that we should make a concerted effort to reintroduce one of Bottom's words, "gleek," into American speech. Several students surprised me by telling me that there was no need for this quixotic venture: they already used the word to mean to spit in a particularly impressive way. For a few days I pursued etymologies, fascinated by what seemed an Elizabethan survival in the language of my students.

One of the many pleasures of Heather Woodbury's What Ever is that it imagines a hidden Midsummer inheritance behind teen lingo, and makes it one of the central structures of her long solo piece. Language is destiny here, and the cadences from Midsummer that mark the speech of the play's young ravers metamorphose into a plot that self-consciously recalls that of Shakespeare's comedy. Clove, for instance, a character who begins by appealing to the waves in mock-Shakespearean rhymes "And clean from me these drops o' mortal jism/ and pull them far into earth's liquid schism" finds herself lost and far from her friends, riding a sculpture floating through the air that looks like a Brussels sprout and is meant to resemble female orgasm, and pairing off with Job, the dead ringer for the boy she loves, Skeeter. Skeeter, of course, turns out to be her half-brother; he pairs off with Clove's "best friend and fairest cohort," Sable. The model for all this pairing off is Midsummer. What Ever's preposterous plot might go somewhat beyond even Shakespeare's comedies and romances, but it might also be that it reminds us of just how preposterous those plots are.

A testament to many of the pleasures and some of the perils of a certain grand American preposterousness, What Ever is a curious, hybrid thing. It began, in 1994-95, as a series of Lower East Side performances skits, really, though that word seems taboo and developed into what is now an intimate marathon: a solo performance piece in eight sections spread over four evenings. What Ever is now on a return engagement at P.S. 122, where its run continues over the next two weekends. So, a series of performances is now an epic, An American Odyssey in 8 Acts, the play's subtitle, or a Living Novel, the curious subtitle of the published text. A note in the program tells us that Woodbury "actively seeks producers for a film version." Series of skits, epic, novel, possibly a movie: what ever is What Ever?

The briefest account of the plot must mention these interlocking characters: Skeeter, Clove, and Sable, teen ravers caught in a long-distance erotic triangle; Violet Smith, aged hipster doyenne who tells tales of New York, Paris, and trans-Atlantic bohemias; Paul Folsom, disenchanted corporate CEO, who loves Skeeter's New Ager aunt, Jeanette Gladjnois; Polly Folsom, the bewildered Southern belle whose marriage to Paul is falling apart and who has fallen in love with a black repairman, Reuben Scott Clay; and Bushie, a.k.a.. Mollie Bright, a deliriously profane hooker who loudly haunts the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood where she grew up. What Ever brings together the stories of each of these characters, Bushie's plot being the most tangential to the others. The play's end is comedy in an old-fashioned style. (Maybe this is, after all, theater?) Each central character ends with his or her beloved, while Violet, the single raconteur, blows her trumpet. She plays, if I heard right, a few bars from Miles Davis and Gil Evans's "Sketches of Spain," here made the boho emblem of the love that will overcome. "Must you speak in verse all the time, deah?" Violet reprimands Clove. "Other than that you're a perfectly pleasant girl." As if to say: enough Shakespeare, bring on the jazz.

What Ever's aspiration is to have both Shakespeare and jazz or Shakespeare as jazz. Jazz has the heavy duty, not for the first time, of standing for the union of all sorts of disparate sources, characters, and strands: corporate insider and Wiccan priestess; Shakespearean rhythm and raver argot; improvisational performance and the institutions of theater, performance, and genre. In one passage, Violet remembers her desire to create "a room that is like jazz, like jazz itself." When Cora May, her housekeeper, hears her plan, she replies that to make such a room would be impossible. "But so is jazz!" replies Violet.

The acknowledgment of the simultaneous impossibility and manifest existence of jazz sets up the concluding moment where Violet plays, impossibly, Miles Davis's trumpet. (The trumpet was given to her by Sammy Tine, a black jazz musician who appears at Polly Folsom's concluding "Interracialist" Tupperware party.) This act of ventriloquism summarizes four evenings of Woodbury's quite amazing feats of ventriloquism, producing, along with the voices and gestures of the main characters sketched above, those of Mexican migrant farm laborers, members of the Lakota nation, and Puerto Rican teenagers. "Ventriloquism" is perhaps the wrong word; these are not, in the manner of Anna Deavere Smith's work, enacted performances of oral testimony. As the Shakespearean resonances suggest, the play as often features invented and highly stylized argots as it does carefully observed versions of everyday speech. Inclusion here is not a matter of responsible reporting and transcription. If anything, What Ever's dramatis personae recalls the scattered hipster casts of rock and roll, where Quinn the Eskimo, Crazy Janey and her mission man, and other spirits in the night appear on the same stage.

But to repeat a refrain: maybe this is, after all, theater. The artifact What Ever most closely resembles is that other sprawling, self-consciously "American" work with a whole set of titles and subtitles, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The parallels are many. Both contain rattled, verbally unruly central characters who are haunted: for Prior Walter's angels, What Ever substitutes none other than the ghost of Kurt Cobain, who occupies Clove, rattles Violet in a visitation that recalls Prior's first erotic encounter with an angel, and frightens the farm laborers, Carlito and Helacio. Both Angels and What Ever include older female figures, Violet Smith and Ella Harper, who surprisingly meld with the only superficially hipper younger folk. Both feature powerful members of the establishment, Paul Folsom and Roy Cohn, whose fates, surprisingly, become intertwined with those of the plays' marginalized protagonists. Beyond these connections of plot, What Ever shares with Angels a utopian confidence in the theater's ability to represent and potentially help create some alternative America, a counter-nation.

What Ever's image for this alternative America, a spectacular cross-generational rave, unquestionably differs from Prior Walter's more somber blessing, but the comparison of the two works is most telling as a measure of the theatrical ambition they share. One body, eighty, ninety, one hundred characters!: This is one way to sum up the terrific ambitions of What Ever, and Woodbury's remarkable talents and stamina. What unites these characters is not simply that body on stage. The eight acts and four evenings and scads of characters are also part of an epic, "An American Odyssey." This odyssey at once describes Skeeter's picaresque crisscrossing of the United States and Clove's foray up the northwest coast, and also the audience's four nights in the theater: It should be the audience's odyssey and the audience's America.

As with Angels, the efforts at performing inclusion to some extent backfire. With the single and problematic exception of Bushie, who wakes up to the fact that she is queer late, late in the story, the central and most vivid figures in What Ever are straight and white. That Bushie is the exception also draws attention to the autonomy of her plot; it is the most loosely tied to the rest of the stories, and in many ways the least convincing. In general, Woodbury's treatment of those for whom marginalization is not an elective affinity but a fact of American life is so gingerly as to lead to a familiar kind of racial sentimentality. The chaotic glee with which she occupies her raver characters and the good-natured battiness she bestows on Violet disappear in the sort of genteel respect one associates with well-meaning entertainments of the 1950s. Reuben Scott Clay, Polly's lover, a powerful man of few words, recalls Dennis Haysbert's character in Far from Heaven, but What Ever does not have that film's uncanny distance from the conventions within which it works. (When Reuben finally speaks, it's a shock.) Cora Sue, housekeeper as confidante, exists mostly to listen to Violet's tales. Carlito, whose letters home to his wife in Mexico we hear, speaks elegiacally but all too familiarly: "I wish I could be there at the moment to drink a coffee in the sun and watch your face and neck while outside all of our little donkeys are braying." This inclusion of familiar stereotypes feels, on another level, like exclusion.

What Ever, once more like Angels in America, asks to be judged in the light of its own ambitions to contain "America," to embody national themes. Its published form tempts one to think of What Ever as a finished thing; in performance, however, it remains a work in progress and the text is still in flux. The manic pleasure with which Woodbury invests Skeeter or Violet limns a brave new world, a surprising and compelling counter-public. But what are the limits governing which bodies Woodbury can anarchically occupy, and which not? Must these limits, too, follow the color line? The limits of such imaginative and performative investment are certainly not those of Woodbury alone. This is American theater, and the failures of What Ever are far preferable to the timid successes of ten thousand "well-drawn" plays set in some zone next door to Friends. I look forward to other, even more capacious odysseys.

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