An Othello Alarum

An Othello Thing / Sean Lewis
Review by Helen Shaw
Commented by Enrique Pardo

small-othello-thing

This post is an insert into the « Algorithms and Shamanism » series – a  sudden New York ‘alarm’. Thematic links will hopefully become apparent with the series.

Article intercalé dans la série « Algorithmes et Chamanisme »: une soudaine alarme arrivée de New York…  Les liens avec les thèmes de la série devraient apparaître au fil des posts. 

This is a review of a review, and it starts with a high note: I have said often that I think Sean Lewis’ performances are the most interesting I have seen in New York. In fact, he shares a top podium in my private Pantheon with Romeo Castellucci[1], but at the other end of the spectrum: fringe, fractious, distrusted, sometimes even hated. Helen Shaw’s writing on “An Othello Thing” is outstanding on many counts: its poise, its regard (looking over twice), its thinking and cautious consideration of the fascination, seduction – or anger – Sean Lewis can arouse. I must check-out her other reviews: Brava – a great ‘dive’ into that particular alarum!

 

Some 12 or 15 years ago (?) I received an email from an ex-CalArts student (ex, as in expelled…) telling me how marked he had been by a guest presentation I gave of my work, and that he was flying over for a weekend workshop in Paris – from L.A.! That weekend in itself could be listed as one of Sean Lewis’ performances. I will let him tell that story. He has visited Pantheatre quite a few times, since, in France but also participating in projects in Mexico City or Italy. And I have seen most of his performances. I flew over (to New York) more than once and found myself among a dozen spectators, some, eyes wide-open, checking for an emergency exit. Others, like me, clearly riveted. Ellen Stewart once pulled my ears (with a twinkle) because I made her La Mama associates go see a piece about a Californian cowboy in Steinland (Gertrud Stein), in the basement of a Methodist church in Brooklyn. Unfortunately Ellen Stewart was bed-ridden by then – otherwise, who knows… She told me Sean had spent twenty-minutes destroying a metal toolbox, jumping on it with his cowboy boots. The night I saw the piece he did a superb ‘rodeo’ on the toolbox.

 

Time to gloss on Helen Shaw’s review; I splice my notes (EP) into her text. I presume the reader has guessed I have not yet seen this piece – I could not make it to New York. I did see an in-progress version some months before. Claire Campbell, lead actor, and Sean, met at a 2014 Paris Pantheatre project… So, the stage is set.

Divers Alarum

theater and its (dis)contents
Helen Shaw, February 3, 2016 : http://diversalarums.com/author/helenelizabethshaw/

Review: An Othello Thing

Why do we go to the theater? What do we expect from it? Does the evaluative process even mean anything?

EP: Yes it does, although, with work like Sean’s it is very hard work to venture into value judgments. It is labour, in line with what I describe as “making Orpheus sweat”[2]. I’ve tried a few times with Romeo Castellucci’s pieces, some recently on this blog; but only fleetingly with Sean Lewis’ performances. So I return to the critical hobbyhorses of my own toolbox: “anima consciousness” and mytho-poetic rhetorics, my main references being: James Hillman, and, in this case, theologian David Miller; more recently, French philosopher Xavier Papaïs, and scholar Peter Kingsley. I find Helen Shaw’s review one of the best I’ve read for a long time: keen, lucid, transparent, forthright and carefully guarded. I envy her writing.

Are we all just motes in God’s eye?

EP: the four figures I mention above tackle that question: theology as mythology as theatre as reality.

These and even more desperate questions preoccupied me as I watched Sean Edward Lewis’s baffling play An Othello Thing, a piece that isn’t at all concerned with the usual things a theatrical piece worries about. Even several weeks later, my mind hasn’t been able to sort the experience into a box. It’s not just that Lewis’s work is incomprehensible. In avant-garde theater, incomprehensibility is usually the starting point. But even in the high reaches of postdramatic weirdness, pieces tend to be oriented toward the audience, even as they’re trying to shock or disturb the minds of those who sit gaping in the seats. This is why theatrical “pills” are sugared: a drained aesthetic (Richard Maxwell) employs a melodramatic text, or an abstract script (Gertrude Stein) pairs with music and micro-spectacle. Lewis’s work, though, turns completely away from you, concentrating entirely on its own happiness and not at all on yours. The moment-by-moment experience of watching it can be amusing or dull, but ultimately, it doesn’t care about what reaction you’re having. That level of callousness is, occasionally, refreshing.

EP: Some days ago, in a workshop in nostalgic Trieste, Italy, a young actor asked me once again the crucial question: “What about the public?” And then, last Saturday, Xavier Papaïs recapped his own superbly refreshing take on magic, quoting from France’s 1968 rebel situationist Guy Debord’s book: La Société du Spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle.) Note: Sean Lewis is steeped in USA echoes of a Stanislavskian Nouvelle Vague, filtered, I understand, through Sanford Meisner. And with a special affinity for Jean Luc Godard (himself steeped in Debord). Check out Lewis’ feature film, titled “Godard”, or was it “Truffaut” (?) In any case: Anna Karina. All three, each in his own way are anima artists (include me too) working on and with revolutionary muses (post-feminist ones nowadays), with sometimes “desperate questions” about erotic/political ‘magic’. My own reply, which is the frame of my appreciation of performances like Sean Lewis’, is: I go to the theatre to share the risk, the “desperate questions”, with the performers – the glorious ones too. I rarely appreciate theatre that wants to entertain me, or worse, give me lessons – give me answers. I have said that I hate intelligent actors: ‘didacticians’ who talk down at me, or ‘exemplars’ who want to show me how things should be said or felt, including penitent confessors who bare their ‘true’ selves. And I like the maverick way in which Lewis includes, comments, crosses and double-crosses all these rhetorics. For me he makes the ‘sweat’ worthwhile. Orphic.

The only other time I’ve seen a Lewis piece, it was in a Greenpoint storefront that also served as his apartment. The show was a modern riff on Frankenstein, though the Shelley plot had been denatured and turned into a metaphor for a couple’s torturous relationship. It boasted a bravura performance by Alexandra Tatarsky and a scene-stealing turn by two cops, who popped by to check on a noise complaint. I came away from that a big fan of Greenpoint policing (so weary! So gentle! So blasé about a half-naked actor!), but a bit at sea about Lewis as a writer-director-performer. The piece and its makers had conviction, certainly—whatever else was in the show, there was ego, big as the Ritz, pulling the rest of the show in its wake. This repelled and appealed in equal measure, but then, swagger always does.

EP: I happen to be re-reading Marie-Louise von Franz’s The Golden Ass[3] – and having a lot of cultural fun with it. A man gets turned into an ass because a lovely young woman with whom he is having a good time, and who is the servant-girl of a formidable witch, steals and rubs on him the wrong potion! She turns him into an ass. Von Franz is very savvy on this, a delicious surprise to me because of her reputation as a blue-stocking Jungian intellectual. Sean Lewis is a sort of Frankenstein Californian Golden Ass, an erotic apprentice sorcerer – with some experience by now – commenting on his own journeys. He is also a trickster, and a snaky, dangerous one at that. It pays off on stage because of the ethical mutations he allows theatre to produce: ass behavior is turned into gold. Alchemy! Of course this involves all sorts of sentimental effusions, including rhetorical crap, from Priapic machismo to soppy kitsch masochism, maverick bravado and moronic cowboy depressions – “a lowering of mental state” (a von Franz favorite.) And it all is still borderline behavior to us. Ovid and Apuleius, and their Metamorphoses, wrote and lived beyond that border, way ahead of us, in what Giulia Sissa calls Roman “urban love”. Sentimental sophistication is the point – and it does get very complex – and, yes, frightening sometimes.

There is an interesting contrast here with Romeo Castellucci, who is still being accused of being the naked king of provocation. He denies it with absolute earnestness; he says it is “necessary” – not provocation. I think there is still too much narrative naïve Puritanism around, which can get very aggressive when it “does not understand”… Freud still has not percolated through, let alone Jung, or Hillman – or Ovid! Jung once quipped back: “the need to understand is a need for mother…”

An Othello Thing shares a number of qualities with Frankenstein. Again, Lewis writes a triangular construction with Lewis and a woman (here the excellent British actor Claire Campbell) playing a central couple, while a weirdo slinks around and makes trouble. Again, the connection to the literary “classic” focuses mainly on its romantic implications, with a woman trying to save/stimulate/survive a broken man. Again, the line between life and performance gets deliberately muddied—in Frankenstein, we were in Lewis’s actual home, while in Othello real-life couple Lewis and Campbell seem to be having a ongoing quarrel. “Fuck off, Sean!” Campbell shouts at one point. “I want to go back to England.” And again, the lady takes her top off. (At this point in my notes, there is a frowny face. I’m all for total nudity everywhere, all the time, but I do grow tired of how this choice only ever seems to apply to very young, very beautiful actresses. Lewis, I am not alone in noting, has a knack for finding these.)

EP: James Hillman who in my view deserved it more than anyone, finally got to be number one bestseller in the New York Times non-fiction list with his The Soul’s Code. An actor once wanted to present to him a stage set-up; he started: “There is a room, a woman is sitting on a sofa, the door opens, a man comes in…” Hillman interrupted: “I am already interested!” His book on Anima, over forty years old now, remains for me the reference for sexual and gender psychological thinking – all the way to the recent charismatic queer proposals of Paul B. Preciado. In the bounce-off between small-talk gossip and sexual metaphysics one can have a glimpse at ‘the anima’s code’.

Lewis’s writing style is mumblecore absurdism, and so his production aesthetic is deliberately enervated, spaced-out, shambolic, zero-budget. Architect/artist Ulla Warchol designs a set for An Othello Thing that looks like a dollar-store Merzbau: the stage is messy with unwinding rolls of brown craft paper, random light bulbs and dangling ropes. The text, though, isn’t dada; for all its studied weirdness, Othello Thing has a scenario, even a sequence of events. For the hour-long show, it alternates between showing us two people obsessed with performing Othello (Campbell does her vocal warmups and helps Lewis apply a few streaks of black greasepaint) and a portrait of psychic disarray (Lewis and the red-wigged Mark Gowers trail disconsolately around the stage as Lewis worries, “I am interested in that point of unfixed—that not-knowing point”). Liegerot, a constant Lewis collaborator and charismatic vet of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, plays Iago Cop, who speaks directly to the audience and generally moves things along. People mention race and performance and disappointment and the human condition, but we’re too lost in the dreamscape for any of it to make sense. In case we orient ourselves, there are plenty of lines to discombobulate us all over again. “Santa is a breakfast food!” somebody yells. So true.

EP: Another ad hoc event: I went to see Waiting for Godot last night. I went because Cécile Duval, the director, has a very special and vitally vibrant relationship, as an actress, to Artaud’s “discombabulations” and to ‘psychotic’ surrealism in general. Plus, I came across recent scholarship which dismantles at last the “mumblecore absurdism” label put on Beckett – who apparently never denied or commented on it. The emphasis of the articles is on empathy and integrity: it shows how much the play reflects Beckett’s involvement in the French resistance (“not because of France but because of what was happening to the Jews”). A new layer appears clearly: two Jews, in Provence, grape-harvesting time, 1943, waiting for the mountain passer supposed to lead them over the Alps to Italy, in the autumn before Mussolini enacted his own anti-Jewish laws[4].

The show was a disappointment: it did not extract enough humanity from the thick salty crust into which Beckett embeds his texts and stage captions. It mostly fell into rigid (deadpan) ‘absurd’ cruel comic – or childish. I am referring to alchemical salt[5]: the necessary bitter dose that dries just right the moist and sentimental calls of anima, draws out the taste and the scars of experience, without the event going sour or sardonic – or allowing it to dry out in absurd barrenness. Nihilism is a tough and dangerous mountain path to thread. It can lead to artistic suicides. I have seen Sean Lewis get through that pass, more than once– like the proverbial tight-rope walker over an abyss.

I approve particularly of something Helen Shaw writes: “The text, though, isn’t dada”. I once put the question to clown-musicians like this: “are you dada, or are you haha, or are you just wanting to be gaga – or to be nada?” Alchemical trash is high art.

Lewis—a wiry auteur who looks like Bruce Willis after art school and a serious shock—has a deadpan affect that comes across as morose. (Onstage, he’s basically a personification of a Magnetic Fields song.) His writing is an interlinked chain of phrases and stream-of-consciousness embellishments, but while the other actors infuse these exchanges with momentary sense, he can’t or (more probably) won’t. In his sharpest directorial choice, avant-noise musician Julie Hair performs live, contributing dark guitar whines from one side of the tiny stage. Her playing underlines the way the text and Lewis’s own, droning voice play with distortion and feedback, and it encourages us to listen to the dialogue as sound rather than sense.

EP: Great Pan is the mentor god of Pantheatre, so, a “deadpan affect” sets off serious alarums, given especially the legends of Pan’s death. Morose mourning. Sean has sustained worse insults on these counts. It is a territory I have watched carefully; very much his own, and far from mine. His is not (only) the affect-cancellation of “postdramatic” post-modernism, the erasure of subjective expressivity, etc. On his own, i.e. solo, it often does not work and can feel lifeless, and unfortunately in line with dull avant-garde conceptual posturing. But then there are the ensembles that gather around him, where obviously he convinces performers and artists into collaborations under his direction (and not only). In these ensemble contexts, his own “deadpan” drifts, often with a much weakened male persona (a zombie Pan), punctuated by mad voodoo testosterone explosions, actually works and affords emotional and polemical life to the other performers, especially the women – for whom it can be, when it works out, a symbiotic, and even incestuous creative challenge and bring out great performances. Men tend to stay ghosts – which I could see as the necessary male masochism mentioned by the “hysterical (French) philosophers”[6], and especially by Deleuze. These are areas from which one can glean factors (I do) for an “evaluative process”, i.e. ethical-esthetical criteria. Helen Shaw questions them acutely.

I hope I get to hear the ‘voice’ of Julie Hair’s music.

But is that interesting? Is it—and the word seems naive—good? It amazes me that even after thinking about the show for weeks, I’m not willing to say. I can’t think of another artist whose work seems to teeter so carefully on the knife’s edge between states. Certainly my appreciation for An Othello Thing has grown since I saw it, even though for the whole time I was watching it I was nonplussed, and I was never shaken nor moved. (Indeed, I was sometimes irritated by its machismo.) And yet, paradoxically, the show feels valuable for those negatives, indeed for all the other many things it is “not.” It’s not derivative; it’s certainly not commercial. And heaven knows it’s not coy or clubby, in the way that so much of New York’s “by us, for us” scene can be. In fact, I think that “outsider art” quality is what has made it a little thorn in my brain, one that won’t be worried loose. You emerge from Lewis’s show feeling like you’ve been in a grotto made out of bottle caps and tinfoil, some deeply private offering, made by an eccentric acolyte for a puzzled god. Did you have fun at the play? What an odd question to ask. As long as you were watching it, you were somewhere totally innocent of money or popularity or cool or cachet. How rare that turns out to be. How precious.

EP: Giving a ‘positive’ in-depth rendering and evaluation of Sean’s work is not, as repeatedly stated, an easy matter. I do not see a predominance of tear-away, “decreative”[7] iconoclasm in his work, even though we know ‘destroy art’ can do us all such a great service. And I have seen Sean take on what Iago/Othello stand for: the murderous politics of sexual possessiveness and psychopathic male domination. To bring up again Italian philologist Giulia Sissa: she has recently written a book in line with her appreciation of Ovidian sophistication titled: In Praise of Jealousy (!) It seems to me that Sean Lewis wants to tear down the claustrophobic partitions of the theatre of sexuality, rather than destroy theatre itself and the very tools of reflection (that toolbox again!)

The French have flair for spotting iconoclastic artists, and money to bring them over (and to make them ‘French’!) I think of the painter Anselm Kiefer, or Romeo Castellucci (“Paris has become my home – with Berlin”), or of the Spanish trio: Rodrigo Garcia, Angelica Liddell, Luis B. Preciado. I wrote to Rodrigo Garcia about Sean’s work; no reply as yet. He has been given the direction of the Montpellier National Drama Centre, and he could give Sean Lewis a break, as could a handful of French festivals directors. But then, given my own craving for a yearly dose of New York salt, I am quite happy to fly over for the next show.

An Othello Thing produced by Lilac Co. ran Thursday, February 4th and Sunday, February 7th (2016) at the Tank in midtown.

Enrique Pardo, Paris, February 10, 2016

[1] Romeo Castellucci – Italian artist-director to whom a series of earlier posts on this blog are dedicated.

[2] An oracular parable – see http://www.pantheatre.com/gb/2-MT13-gb.html

[3] Apuleios’ The Golden Ass (originally titled Metamorphoses, like Ovid’s) contains, as a story within the story, the myth of Eros and Psyche, which is the theme of Pantheatre’s July 2016 Myth and Theatre Festival. See www.pantheatre.com/gb/2-MT16-gb.html

[4] Articles by Pierre and Valentin Temkine, on http://www.revue-texto.net/Dialogues/Temkine_Godot.pdf . See the polemics on http://www.laviedesidees.fr/Samuel-Beckett-dans-l-histoire.html

[5] Again the reference is James Hillman and his essay on Alchemical Salt.

[6] Mehdi B. Kacem, franco-tunisian philosopher, in, Être et Séxuation, 2013, qualifies Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze as « the hysterical philosophers » – a high compliment – as opposed to Alain Badiou, his ex-master teacher, whose lingering Maoism he calls « male transcendentalism ». There has been quite a duel between them, Badiou responding with a book titled: Is woman a philosophical concept?

[7] Decreation is the notion proposed by Anna Griève for the dynamics of what she calls « radical evil », in her book: Les Trois Corbeaux – pour une science du mal dans les contes merveilleux (The Three Crows – towards a science of evil in fairy tales – not yet translated into English.) See www.pantheatre.com/4-newsletter-anna-grieve.html

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4 réflexions sur “An Othello Alarum

  1. Pingback: LILAC CO

  2. Ever since I experienced Sean Lewis’s play, Igor Mortis, I’ve been Google-stalking his and Lilac Co.’s work. I was very happy to see that you’ve been thinking and talking about it. To say that I recently watched Igor Mortis wouldn’t be quite right. What I did was witness the inner-workings of a man come to life in a bar, at the foot of a stage—but even that’s not right, not really. The bar wasn’t a bar and the man wasn’t a man and the stage wasn’t a stage, not for theater. And the man’s inner-workings were personified: two men, two women, a master a monster a good guy and a bad — those and more, and all one person (but not) and all having conversations that I thought only I had, with myself. There they were: my inner-workings being staged, and sometimes being staged behind—what was that? Saran Wrap?—and there too was my shame and my desire and my child self and the person I fear I am and the one I wish could become. It was the strangest thing, as if Sean Lewis had reached into my brain and squeezed it so hard, out came characters who confused and mortified me, who disgusted and puzzled me. And then I felt this incredible wash of — yes — I had finally been understood. It was all there, all at once. All in Igor Mortis. I felt so alive after, and completely fried.

    Sarah Dohrmann
    http://www.sarahdohrmann.com

    J'aime

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