by Brook Stowe
If you met August Schulenburg at a party or struck up a conversation with him in the checkout line at D'Agostino's, you would probably take him to be an affable, unfettered fellow -- someone who perhaps delights the neighborhood children with his quirky balloon designs or spends weekends tinkering with his vintage panhead Harley out in the front yard. A brief exchange, a passing conversation might well leave you entirely unaware that Schulenburg is one of the most original, tormented and demanding playwrights working here -- or anywhere else, I'd wager -- today.
OK, so maybe he leaves the tormented part in his word processor, or just transfers it all upon the shoulders and into the psyches of his characters (and directors), but I am hard-pressed to think of any contemporary American playwright working so constantly and compellingly in the murky twilight of human consciousness, where dreams mingle with reality and the corporeal grazes the spiritual in contact both bruising and desirous.
Other Bodies, offered up by the Flux Theatre Ensemble as part of the 12th Annual NYIFF, is Schulenburg's latest exploration into why we exist. Continuing to explore some of the themes of last year's Fringe Audience fave, Riding the Bull -- deceptive money-making schemes, the desire/repulsion dichotomy between men and women, people and God; suddenly explosive, sexually-propelled cathartic violence -- Other Bodies offers a pungent new layer into the mix: gender switch. A man who plays women to get ahead sexually and professionally wakes up one day to find he has become one.
And then the party really gets started.
If you're thinking Ellen Barkin and Blake Edwards here, stop. Right now. The gender bender of Other Bodies just gives Schulenburg increased latitude to share his obsessions with us, those of deeply flawed, deeply longing individuals desperately seeking the acknowledgment if not the favor of a fickle and elusive God.
It's not easy going. On either side of the fourth wall. Other Bodies is the pure theater of language. Schulenburg crafts his work solely from weaving language together, layer upon layer, exchange upon exchange. No multimedia mashup here -- no, hey, that passage is a little thin -- I know! We'll fill it with a clip from "I Love Lucy" and chalk up whatever the hell that might mean to the vagaries of postmodernism!
No, no, ye blogolicious faithful. Not here. Not this time.
Other Bodies -- like all of Schulenburg's work -- demands you stay engaged or you get left behind, demands you participate intellectually, demands you think about what is happening before you as it is happening. Schulenburg's theater is the theater of the mind as well as the body, of the ephemeral moment as well as the timelessness of the pursuit.
And -- just because I used demand three times in the above graf, I'm going to just keep on and marvel both at the demanding task Schulenburg lays at the feet of his cast and director, and how well both rise to the challenge. Vince Nappo and Christina Shipp negotiate not only numerous characters, but numerous characters switching genders with nothing but themselves and Jason Paradine's minimalist set to work off of over an exhausting and, yeah, demanding 2-plus hours of performance, all under the confident guidance of director Heather Cohn.
OK, I'll stop being so demanding now.
But ... I will say ...
Any of you out there who may have actually been reading these dog days posts of mine know I never advise of anything too soon, and I continue to hew firmly to that policy here. If nothing else, I am consistent: Other Bodies has but one more performance as part of this year's Fringe, and that is today at 3:45 at CSV, 107 Suffolk St.
If you want to see the latest work of one of the best American playwrights working today, get on down there.
If you want to chat up the playwright later, look for the easygoing, affable guy out in the lobby.
Til next ...
Friday, August 22, 2008
by Brook Stowe