A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace)
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
March 28, 2012
David Foster Wallace's prose is an ostensibly odd choice for theatrical adaptation, given its notorious length and complexity.1 At two and a half hours with only a five minute stretch break in the middle, watching Daniel Fish's adaptation at The Chocolate Factory can, at moments, feel like a comparable feat of endurance. Starting with the titular essay which recounts Wallace's week on a Caribbean cruise for Harper's, the show presents a wide range of his essays, short stories and interviews, covering such diverse topics as David Lynch, tennis prodigy Tracy Austin's banal memoir, and his own writing. A young ensemble of actors fills the broad, white, industrial space, all wearing headphones which are connected to a center-stage hub that then feeds back to Fish in the center of the audience with a laptop and mixing board. Fish feeds the actors audiobook and interview recordings of Wallace himself, which the actors then recite. The exact combination and casting of texts used changes with every performance at his discretion, so to some extent Fish has not so much staged an adaptation as he has built an instrument.
Beyond being a compelling analogy for Fish's role as director, this structure of a central consciousness dynamically fractured into multiple, competing voices is an apt way to address the complexity of Wallace's prose. He often described writing as a means to parse out the many voices of his cacophonously powerful mind.2 Mapping that multiplicity of ideas and formal fractures onto an ensemble of voices over space and time served as an effective translation and expansion of that impulse into theater's formal possibilities. This was made apparent early in an extended section of his interview with Charlie Rose. We could hear the murmur of Rose's questions feeding into all of the headphones while Wallace's answers were divided individually among the ensemble, structurally unified by everyone voicing the stammering and vocal ticks as his thoughts would trip up on their expression.
Repeating words being fed through headphones is an exhausting feat of concentration, particularly text as syntactically and idea-dense as Wallace's can be.3 This endowed the performances with a striking sort of athleticism, made literal when Therese Plaehn admirably winded herself doing jumping jacks while delivering a story from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men about the heartbreaking endurance of a career bathroom attendant. The constant effort of performing in this way liberated the actors from having the cognitive resources to conventionally act. At times the result was awkward and disconnected, but when the performers were able to really sync with the material, they achieved a sort of flow-state or trance, sybillically channeling the author from beyond. This meditative performance mode served as a framework for some lovely and organic moments. Hearing the same voice mediated through so many individuals gave them a prismatic unity as each performer captured different facets of Wallace's distinctive speech patterns; his dynamically present absence is a unifying and ghostly sixth character in the room.4
Laura Jellinek's set laced the broad space with a grid of tennis balls, degrading into a large pile at one end. Wallace was a ranked junior tennis player in his youth, and the sport was often prominently and rigorously featured in his work. On entering the house, the audience has to navigate the field of balls as well as a tennis ball launcher rhythmically shooting its projectiles against the far wall to bounce back towards one end of the audience.5 Over the performance the ensemble's movement sent the carefully placed grid of balls entropically ricocheting into chaos. It is an effective metaphor for the inner turbulence of a fractured mind's competing voices,6 but apart from a few tosses here and there the balls remain passive, which seems like a loss of kinetic potential for an element that suffuses the space for so much of the piece. Thomas Dunn's lighting design is minimal and functional, consisting of a few basic instruments and clip-lights operated by the actors with clunking switches. Both designs paid off unexpectedly with the final image of Plaehn relaxing in the corner pile of tennis balls, warmly lit by a well-camouflaged light bulb mixed in among the other comparably-sized spheres, delivering the one piece of text not by Wallace, but rather from a friend recounting a road-trip with him in their youth. It was a moment of striking theatricality in a show that often strained at the parameters of what made it theater. Long-winded, reflexively clever, and a bit pretentious, it is nevertheless rooted in an earnest desire to share a sense of genuine wonder and excitement for its subject, much like Wallace's writing itself. This apt marriage of form and content calls to mind the recent literary adaptations of Elevator Repair Service, particularly their rendition of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Both pieces utilize a literal and comprehensive approach to staging literary prose that honors the original texts' difficulty by finding analogous complexity in the theatrical form.
There is a great generosity to Wallace's writing. By engaging so aggressively and self-consciously with the constraints of both literary form and personhood, he engenders in the reader a particular sort of increased sensitivity to and reverence for their world and how they process it. It is a real gift that he gives. Fish's adaptation functioned similarly on me: leaving the theater I felt a little lulled, a little anxious, and very self-consciously engaged with questions of what it means to watch theater or to make it, to read or to write. As I settled into this feeling on the G train home, I was struck by its cozy familiarity. Fish recreates through new means that essential experience of encountering the work. Wallace's initial wonder at what it is to be a person spread like a virus to Fish and his ensemble, then out into their audiences and perhaps beyond. With the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust's generally positive attitude towards licensing for adaptation, we will no doubt see that germ of generosity spread further, continuing to pay forward his gift long after his tragic departure.
1 His satirical masterpiece, Infinite Jest, clocks in at subway reader-punishing 981 pages, plus another hundred or so of endnotes, some of which go on for pages and contain their own, nested notes.
2 “This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc.”
3 From Jonathan Franzen's eulogy for him: “Way out at word number 70 or 100 or 140 in a sentence deep into a three-page paragraph of macabre humour or fabulously reticulated self-consciousness, you could smell the ozone from the crackling precision of his sentence structure, his effortless and pitch-perfect shifting among ten different levels of high, low, middle, technical, hipster, nerdy, philosophical, vernacular, vaudevillian, hortatory, tough-guy, broken-hearted, lyrical diction.”
4 Noting how the conception of ghosts evolves throughout history in tandem with the mediascape, Friedrich Kittler wrote that, “the realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture.”
5 I happened to find my seat more or less directly in the path of the “Lob-ster” (perhaps a sly wink towards Wallace's essay collection Consider the Lobster), and so my pre-show time was spent deflecting tennis balls from hitting my neighbor and me, an unexpectedly enjoyable pastime.
6 cf. Philosopher/Scientist Douglas Hofstadter's “Careenium” [http://philosophyandpsychology.wordpress.com/2008/01/24/the-careenium/]