3 2’s; or AFAR
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 6, 2011
What I generally find intriguing about Mac Wellman’s work is the way it attempts to bend non-narrative language styles—elliptical, poetic, even philosophical language—to a storytelling purpose. Every line may not always make a literal, concrete sense, but meaning and emotion are evoked nonetheless, so the experience isn’t always easy to explain, but has a deep resonance.
3 2’s; or AFAR, though, may have gone too far in the elliptical direction; it is visually mesmerizing but I can’t really claim to have understood what the piece is about other than in the broadest thematic terms. (It has something to do with the idea of presence and selfhood, with ghosts, with the imminence of danger—I think. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of the play, which describes itself as “a meditation on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s ‘Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer’”—with an investigation into the Japanese term iki—something like “sensuousness.”) It felt almost like watching a language-inflected dance piece, or a poetry reading scored to movement, more than narrative theater.
Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it—it’s beautifully staged by director Meghan Finn; all the visual elements are striking, the performances are intense and committed. The Dixon Place mainstage space is used in a really clever way, incorporating the balcony and all kinds of entrances and exits usually not played, so you never quite know where the action is moving next. The lighting and set designs (by Kyle Chepulis and Bryan Aldous) fill the space with stark contrasts between light and darkness, and incorporate shadows and shadow puppetry in intriguing ways. A mysterious bowling ball rolls around the space, seemingly self-propelled. It’s all intensely watchable, if sometimes baffling.
The story framework is very simple: a man (a philosopher) becomes intrigued by a woman he sees at his local coffee shop, who runs a puppet theater. He finally manages to strike up a conversation and she brings him back to see her space, which is haunted by a group of Something/Nothings, who are part mask, part ghost, part puppet, and wholly uncanny. There are also two shoes—not a pair, but two single shoes—who are something between prop, character, set piece, and ghost. In the interstices of a tour of the theater, Man and Woman slip in and out from ordinary conversation to philosophical realms, from a metaphysical to a physical relationship, and ultimately seem to circle right back around to where they began.
The conceit of the puppet/ghosts (the Something/Nothings; they’re described in the script as purely faces but come here attached to bodies in kimonos) was to me the most intriguing part of the piece. The three women embodying the faces wear Japanese-style gilded masks on the tops of heads, so to “face” the audience, they must bend over. I can’t tell you precisely why or how this changes the entire expressive register of a mask or a figure, but it does. The subtle not-rightness of the posture and physicality of the figures you see—from the way it holds its face to the way it moves—is unsettling enough to make them seem not entirely human, and very much like a giant puppet, animated by some other agency. What they do and say, of course, is also strange and uncanny—sing eerie songs and sneak around in shadows and sometimes crawl suspended from railings like giant spiders.
The Something/Nothings are more aware of Man and Woman than vice versa, but they seem to inhabit two separate realms of time/space or perhaps the physical/immaterial planes. I think I was perhaps dimly glimpsing both of them, grasping at the shadows of the intentions of the piece’s creators. There’s something intriguing to the mysterious, but I would have liked to be able to find a little more of a foothold in the content here.