Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sock it to me, baby

Aimee Rose Ranger and Alejandro Simoes ponder their twin fates.  Photo: Chris McKenzie
In the past I've described Whistler in the Dark as the one company in town devoted to theatre for thinking people.  But you know - sometimes I think they think too much.

Take their current offering, Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events (at the Factory Theatre through this weekend); it claims to be a meditation on the meaning of 9/11.  But really it's a free-form discourse on questions of free will and determinism, the possibility that randomness may not actually exist, and the impossibility of moral action in a universe where ultimate outcomes are unknown - whew!  After all that, the fate of the twin towers is almost an afterthought.  Don't get me wrong - the script is fun in a way, and Lord knows it's clever; when you find yourself watching a sock puppet argue that it has free will (and doing a pretty convincing job of it, too), you know you're hanging with the smartest of the smart set.  In fact I'd probably rate Recent Tragic Events right up there with the best late-night dorm-room debates I've ever heard - and believe me, I've heard more than a few.

But how would I rate it as a play? Ooo, sorry, but here I have to point out that discussions of metaphysics (via meta-theatre) only rarely work as drama, and yeah, as the script doesn't come with its own bong and bowl of munchies, I might have preferred a tight little conflict, and attendant resolution, to Wright's extended exegesis of his notes from Philosophy 101.

Still, Wright is witty, and so are the Whistlers; Recent Events may fall flat when it tries to turn Tragic, but as a breezy sitcom for the Mensa crowd, it definitely has its moments.  And maybe that's partly the idea; against all seeming aesthetic odds, this playwright has styled his 9/11 tribute as a self-conscious comedy; even though his central character, Waverly (Aimee Rose Ranger) is waiting to learn whether her twin sister has perished in one of the twin towers, she still embarks on a blind date with sweet, awkward Andrew (Alejandro Simoes), who has wandered in straight out of Friends, along with two "wacky" next-door neighbors, wild man Ron (Nathaniel Gundy) and his mute muse Nancy (Meg Taintor, who's usually directing this intrepid little band).  Oh, I forgot - they're eventually joined by Joyce Carol Oates, who is played by a sock puppet worn by Nancy (who suddenly finds her voice as Joyce).  Oh wait one more thing - this Joyce Carol Oates isn't THE Joyce Carol Oates, the puppet informs us - that is, she's not the prolific author of Because It is Bitter, and Because It is My Heart, and many other novels and works of prose.   Although this Joyce Carol Oates, she proudly informs us, did write precisely the same series of books as that other Joyce Carol Oates.

Got that?  She's a special type of twin who is somehow identical in metaphysical appearance to her counterpart without, actually, sharing the same identity.  As we ponder that conundrum, however, we may remember that Waverly is also a twin - and that she's waiting to hear of her twin sister's fate in one of the, yes, twin towers.  Indeed, the entire play is floating in a kind of "twinned" narrative space - after all, it might end in the news that Waverly's sister is safe, OR that she has died; hence, Recent Tragic Events could be read as either a situation comedy OR as a situation tragedy. And call me crazy, but I also couldn't help but wonder at Wright's intents by choosing that odd name "Waverly" for his lead - is he referring to the famous Young "double slit experiment," in which electrons only decide whether to behave as a wave or a particle once they know they're being observed?  Is Recent Tragic Events perhaps best described as one long wave (or Waverly) function, poised to collapse into a single outcome?

Ok - by now I know only the eggheads are still reading.  But actually, there's still more in the way of speculative metaphysics to unpack here.  Indeed, Wright all but piles on the conundrums and paradoxes.  We are told by the stage manager, for instance, that the plot of the first act is to be decided by a coin toss - that is, by pure chance!  Only wait - at intermission we learn that she isn't a "real" stage manager at all (Ha!) and that the outcome of the coin toss didn't matter; the play is entirely scripted, and nothing in it has actually been random.  (OR HAS IT?  Discuss!!!).  To be fair, the extended argument over free will which ensues is probably the most gripping stretch of writing in the script; Joyce Carol Oates does her darned-est (sorry!) to convince our skeptical Friends that free will must exist, because without it, our actions, our lives, and even huge events like 9/11, can have no real meaning.

Pondering 9/11 from a distance - Thomas Hoepker's famous photograph.
But - well, to be frank, while I appreciated the meta-theatrical metaphors by which Wright conjured the conundrums surrounding the issue of free will, I can't pretend that Recent Tragic Events really gets far as an intellectual treatise; it certainly doesn't break any new ground in this particular philosophical debate, and it never grapples with the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to defend a limited sense of free will (a set of contentions generally referred to as compatibilism).  Now it's a lot to expect a play to be convincing as philosophical argument - yet if it's not a very satisfactory play either, well .  . .

Actually, it occurs to me that these issues are linked - indeed, I often asked myself, as I watched Recent Tragic Events - is the stage an appropriate arena for pure metaphysical speculation, of the kind Wright wants to dabble in here?  I'd argue no - and note that the playwright can't, or won't, give his Joyce Carol Oates sock puppet any real compatibilist zingers in her battle with his champions of determinism; perhaps because a few well-placed barbs would deflate his whole premise; they'd shut the play down.  For ironically enough, determinist argument is secretly (and, I think, naively) dependent on a shared belief in free will, of some stripe or other - for otherwise, how could the proponents  of determinism have developed their arguments, and moreover, how could anyone be convinced by them?  Simply wanting to argue, wanting to convince someone else of something, is an impossibility if you truly believe that you and they have no free will; such actions require at least some degree of freedom to have any meaning.  In short, if we have no freedom, then why are we at a play by Craig Wright, and why should we listen to him?  Theatre is all about freedom and its limits; it's essentially a concrete metaphor for compatibilism.  Show a man onstage in chains, and another with a gun, and you could never convince an audience that they enjoyed the same degree of freedom (much less no comparative freedom at all!).

Thus one quickly senses the basic problem with Recent Tragic Events - Wright is playing a kind of philosophical three-card monte throughout it.  He should be developing some sort of dramatic action to illuminate whatever freedom his characters can enjoy even while experiencing "the inevitable" - but instead, he doodles around the borders of his non-action with a lot of borrowed metaphysical concepts.  Oh well, he's not the first smart over-aged undergraduate to get drunk on this kind of thing, I suppose, and he has certainly been lucky in the cast at Whistler.  Nathaniel Gundy is the hilarious stand-out as the zen-gonzo Ron (adding to a growing gallery of memorable portraits from this actor, btw), but Meg Taintor also makes a memorably mischievous impression as Joyce Carol Oates, and Alejandro Simoes more than holds his own with a subtly-drawn performance in what is a truly thankless role.  Alas, only Aimee Rose Ranger - one of the most reliable actresses on the fringe - flounders a bit as Waverly.  It's not that she has suddenly lost her talent - in fact, in a way she's undone by her own actressy instincts.  We can tell that she can tell the role is underwritten, that it's really more symbol than character - and this kind of throws her.  Meanwhile director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary has once more held to her usual subtle standards - but I did sometimes wonder whether in her staging, or the production design, she hadn't missed some slightly surreal edge that I think Wright may have been groping for in his tone.  But then perhaps in some other "twin" of this production, out there in the infinite metaphysical continuum, some other Bridget Kathleen O'Leary has caught some other Craig Wright's elusive tone quite perfectly. (And some twin of Thomas Garvey has penned a rave.)


  1. A most enjoybale review - though I doubt I would necessarily be inspired to attend (should I have the opportunity). I conlude that, it being practically impossible to know if there is true free will (and I suspect, absent some religious get-out-of-jail-free card, there is not) then we might as well believe we have the unfettered capacity to choose. We'll feel better fot it, I am sure.

  2. Well . . . not exactly. What I wish Craig Wright had focused on, in the end, is the fact that the free will debate is locked between dueling contradictions, but still we have to carry on as best we can. If we look toward the past, physics insists that everything is pre-determined (okay, quantum mechanics makes that probabilistically pre-determined, but that hardly affords our actions a moral dimension). If we look toward the future, we have to ponder that "free will" probably doesn't matter as a moral concept anyhow, because we are ignorant of the final impact of our decisions (see Oedipus, Hamlet, et al.). It's good to be reminded of these things, of course; we should always be skeptical of the laughably grandiose religious, political, and "spiritual" moral claims that surround us. Yet at the same time, we intuitively appreciate that our consciousnesses have some sort of fuzzily-defined arena of - well, let's just call it unpredictable action. In short, as far as WE can tell, we do seem to make at least some decisions for ourselves; and we likewise find ourselves somehow "forced" by our psychology to ponder their meaning. Treating that paradox in a fruitful way on the stage is one of the central tasks of the playwright, and I kind of feel Craig Wright, for all his cleverness, ducks it here.

  3. I do want to mention one more amusingly meta aspect of this production. It turns out lead actress Aimee Rose Ranger has an identical twin herself (just like the character she plays). And this young lady saw the show the night I attended - so I couldn't help but notice that Ms. Ranger seemed to have an exact double watching her from the audience. Until I confirmed with house management that Ms. Ranger did, indeed, have a sister in the audience, the whole experience had a kind of down-the-cosmological-wormhole quality for me, and Wright's themes had a particularly spooky resonance.

  4. Interesting point about the two slit experiment.

  5. The free-will doctrine is really a product of Christian theology, which not only posits an omnipotent creator God, but also a doctrine of both eternal damnation and eternal reward. Free-will was a necessary fix to avoid giving the upper hand to Gnosticism in general (and Manichaenism in particular) which often posited that the creator was actually an evil creator.

    In that context, I never could grasp how free-will debates made sense outside of Christian theology.

    (Another bit of parallelism: Aimee Rose Ranger told me that the bookcase on the stage was largely stocked from her personal collection.)

  6. Really, Ian? Free will doesn't play a part in Judaism (or Islam and other faiths)? I'm not sure why we'd need ten commandments if people didn't imagine we had the ability to make moral choices.

  7. There's a distinction between freedom as a human capacity (i.e. the ability to follow laws of one's own volition without constraint) and free will as a metaphysical exploit.

    As a metaphysical concept it really doesn't make sense unless one posits the whole eternal damnation thing-- which is pretty foreign to most forms of Judaism (there is very little consensus regarding the afterlife in Judaism in the manner that there is in Christianity and Islam.)

    Whether or not my actions are free or determined (in the metaphysical sense) is only urgent as "if God created me then why should I go to Hell for the things He created me to do?" Otherwise it is a purely academic matter.

    In short, on the free-will versus determinism debate, Christianity is with free-will, Deism is with determinism, and Judaism is concerned with something else entirely.

  8. Okay. I agree there's a Christianist variety of "free will." BUT I'm not sure that said variety is the subject of "Recent Tragic Events." Instead, I think your initial formulation - "the human capacity to follow laws of one's own volition without constraint" considered AS a "metaphysical exploit" is kind of what Craig Wright is critiquing. In other words, he is conjuring a sense of metaphysical urgency sans any resort to questions of judgment in the afterlife.

  9. But the sort of "free will" of Recent Tragic Events is really more about the distinction between characters in a play (who have a largely deterministic existence with only tiny degrees of freedom due to actor interpretation) and real people who certainly have the experience of making choices free of constraint, on one hand, and the other of having historical events infringing on ones planned out existence.

  10. Well, I disagree. "Recent' counts as meta-theatre, but its concerns are not about the metaphysical differences between fictional characters and real people.

  11. But it does establish the parallel of the ontological difference between fictional characters and real people on one hand, and the experience of losing freedom when overtaken by historical events.