nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
November 10, 2005
A dozen or so suited men sing: “If God says Nothing / Then Do Nothing.”
A lone man moves cardboard along the floor, as he is unable to touch it with his feet.
This man ties a shoe to his head, and carefully moves a trash bag full of empty Coke cans.
This man is a butler, an American hero, a homeless man.
He has a thing for Rabbit and is in love with a young woman whose face has too many freckles.
A.W.O.L., an adaptation of Oliver Cadiot’s Colonel Zoo, could very easily be called obtuse. It rambles like a lunatic. It throws in seemingly random and unrelated bits of text and imagery. It is whimsical and deadly serious. It embraces the sort of mess that few theatrical pieces do these days: it is a surrealist painting and a prose poem and it demands the attention of those who love language in theatre.
The play is covered from head to toe in resplendent words, which makes perfect sense considering its source. It is also centered and grounded by the masterful performance of Steven Rattazzi. Essentially a one-man show, Rattazzi is everyone he is supposed to be, switching from satire to sincerity, high status to low, within a few seconds, never feeling ethereal or unfocused. In moments he moves with the grace of a dancer, but never allows us to feel that we are watching an overly rehearsed performance. It’s a marathon performance, full of life, and Rattazzi never misses a touching beat or laugh line. He is supported by an all-male chorus, who sing the wonderful music by composer Adam Silverman. Between Rattazzi and this chorus, there is a conflict between uniformity and passion that is palpable.
What is this play about? That’s an open question. The book is about a butler, but director Marion Schoevaert and translator Cole Swensen have adapted this character into a schizophrenic everyman, moving throughout his identities fluidly. He is always, though, an outsider. Unable to touch or communicate with those around him, those with fixed and uniform identities. It becomes the journey of an explorer, who longs to be a part of his world, but has no place in it. Much like Beckett’s novels, A.W.O.L. places a lone voice in the void, and shows how human the void can be.
The very thing, this unspeakable void, that makes A.W.O.L. powerful could also be, to some audience members, a frustrating flaw. The specifics are wantonly vague, and the script whirls around in both circumstance and tone, never placing itself in time. (The production notes that this takes place in the streets of downtown New York, but I had to take their word for it. I’m sure New York isn’t the only place with cardboard boxes and Coca-Cola.) The lack of groundedness creates the plays dizzying highs, but makes for a difficult and dense evening, even at less than 90 minutes. I didn’t walk out with a firm sense of what exactly was happening, other than the struggle. Each character had his obsessions, and together they formed the whole of our narrator; but in a mad world it’s difficult to find a clean thread.
Somehow though, it all makes some sort of internal sense. Or doesn’t. Either way, A.W.O.L. is as spare, and complex, as a poem.