Why do we go to the theater? What do we expect from it? Does the evaluative process even mean anything? Are we all just motes in God’s eye? 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
An Othello Thing produced by Lilac Co. runs Thursday, February 4th and Sunday, February 7th at the Tank in midtown.