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What just happened?

George Heymont
Monday, May 24

Jenny Schwartz's dazzling play, God's Ear (which just received its heady regional premiere from the Shotgun Players) gets off to an anxious start as a confused and terrified mother tries to process the fact that, following a drowning accident, there is no hope for her son to survive. Ricocheting between denial, disbelief, desperation, and exhaustion, Mel (Beth Wilmurt) and her husband Ted (Ryan O'Donnell) try to wrap their minds around an unimaginable family tragedy. That's where the fun begins.

Beautifully directed by choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, God's Ear takes off on a rapid-fire ride through every cliché our society has developed so that people can rely on euphemisms instead of dealing with the cold hard truth. Sometimes her riffs have a hip-hop rhythm. At other times they feel like arias of linguistic pus oozing from a freshly-lanced boil. In one of her frustrated outbursts, the confused but determined Mel insists:
"And we'll cross that bridge.
And bridge that gap.
And bear that cross.
And cross that T.
And part that sea.
And act that part.
And turn that leaf.
And turn that cheek...."

As Schwartz explains:
"I am always thinking about the chasm between what we are thinking and feeling, and what we are able and willing to express through words. Along these lines, I'm endlessly fascinated with our unavoidable reliance on cliché as well as our unconscious adherence to socially prescribed modes of behavior. I'm interested in the way we express ourselves using regurgitated and borrowed language, both privately and publicly. On the one hand, I find our use of cliché sad, annoying, and infuriating while, on the other hand, I see tremendous beauty and hilarity in this strange shared language that we pass on and on and on.

With God's Ear, I wanted to deal with the subjects of grief and estrangement in a way that felt honest and emotionally connected; the barrage of language that makes up the play is fueled by and grounded in the characters' emotions and intentions. Mel experiences a great deal of fury as she expresses her feelings and experiences through language and finds herself with no other vehicle than cliché.

Although the play's plot and language -- as well as some of its characters -- are absurd and not realistic, the actors have absolutely approached their characters and the text in ways that are real and connected while attending to the text's strict rhythm and musicality. While I am incredibly exacting and precise with regard to the sounds of the words, I leave the play's physical world entirely up to the director and designers."

Lisa Clark's wonderfully inventive set (which uses every part of the Ashby Stage's free space) reminds me of an attraction I used to enjoy at George C. Tilyou's famed Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Ticketholders would climb a flight of stairs to a platform where they could make their way down a giant slide. They landed on a surface that contained a series of rotating turntables. The challenge was for them to make their way across multiple spinning surfaces to the ride's exit. Many quickly fell down. Most crawled to the exit on their hands and knees. According to Coney Island Dreams:

"Steeplechase installed a number of devices designed to give patrons the opportunity to play the fool. In addition to its various rides, Steeplechase provided 'stunts' designed to catch people off guard. Visitors entering the park from the ocean side had to pass through the 'Barrel of Fun,' a huge, slowly revolving cylinder which frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact.

Instead of games of competitive skill, which demanded self-control, Steeplechase emphasized games of theatricality and of vertigo, which encouraged participants to shed self-consciousness and surrender to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play. The 'Wedding Ring,' a great wooden circle suspended from a center pole, applied the principle of a playground swing to a ride that accommodated up to seventy customers at once. Similarly, the human 'Roulette Wheel,' which like a gigantic toy delighted both riders and spectators, set passengers whirling and sprawling out from its center by centrifugal force.

Equally important, Steeplechase attempted to satisfy the pleasure people derived from seeing others made foolish. Erstwhile victims were encouraged to sit in the 'Laughing Gallery' and act as spectators for those who followed. In this way, a major attraction of Steeplechase was simply the sanctioned opportunity to witness the wholesale violation of dominant social proprieties. Momentary disorientation, intimate exposure, physical contact with strangers, pratfalls, public humiliation -- conditions that in other circumstances might have been excruciating -- became richly entertaining. The laughter of participants and spectators testified to their sense of release."

Hurtling through an abyss of confusion, hurt, loss, and anxiety, Mel's thoughts collide and ricochet like bumper cars of the mind. What should she tell her daughter Lanie (Nika Ezell Pappas), who dreams of becoming Helen Keller when she is not busily perfecting a six-year-old child's annoyingly repetitive use of the word "Why"?

Meanwhile, a man-hungry barfly named Lenora (Zehra Berkman) seems to be stalking Ted in airport lounges on his business trips. When he tries to call home, Mel turns her phone receiver upside down to poor herself a drink as she struggles to find a way to communicate with her increasingly remote husband.

Schwartz's script features frequent visits from the Tooth Fairy (Melinda Meeng). In a bravura display of double casting, Keith Pinto appears as a bearded flight attendant in drag and a G.I. Joe action figure come to life who possesses exceptional beatboxing skills.

In many ways, God's Ear is like a roller coaster ride through the dark caverns of doubt and the deeper recesses of an overly stressed imagination. As soon as one realizes that it's best to simply let go of the safety bar and sit back and enjoy the ride, it becomes easier to get inside Mel's anxiety, Ted's confusion, Lanie's neediness, and the nonsensical strings of clichés spewing from the actors' mouths as the magic of Schwartz's writing takes hold.

In her program notes, director/choreographer Erika Chong Shuch writes:
"This world we live in is crazy, irrational, and sporadic. I think that sometimes, in making theatre, we forget that we can do anything. We forget that our own human imaginations have this beautiful way of making meaning out of fragments, and that the meaning we each create for ourselves is the result of a unique life. I want to make the kind of theatre that provides enough information for you to follow along -- but not enough information to dictate a prescribed response.

Jenny Schwartz has given us a play that calls on our innate intelligence by asking us to connect disparate pieces of information within a funny and terrible journey. She has given us an opportunity to activate our own imaginations within a sturdy structure. Live theatre is a crazy and amazing thing. I hope it never dies.

This play is like a treasure box with hidden compartments, where unending jewels fall through our fingers with every encounter. Jenny gives us a densely layered world that so accurately gets at the heart of something truly unimaginable (and she doesn't do this by presenting a world that is clear or dramatic or rational). The world she opens up to us is one in which no one says what they feel and yet, through the avoidance of full, clear emotional disclosures, we get closer to the guts of what it actually feels like to be overwhelmed with grief.

When the fine folks at Shotgun introduced this play to me as a possible world to bring to life I could not have been more thrilled. I immediately felt such a strange hunger for this material -- an immediate rush of images that has not stopped since the initial reading. God's Ear feels so darn honest because it's about what we say when we're running from an unbearable weight."

God's Ear may remind some people of rapidly shifting dreams that seem to make no sense. In an odd way, it reminded me of Eric Overmyer's brilliant play On The Verge (Or The Geography of Yearning), in which three female explorers travel through time and across "Terra Incognita." For those who enjoy language, nonsense, have a taste for the absurd, and relish a wild theatrical ride, Schwartz's play continues through June 20 at the Ashby Stage (you can order tickets here). Highly recommended!


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