Theatre Review: Masterful Thank You for Coming: Play at Wexner Center
Faye Driscoll returns to Columbus for a world-premiere run of her new Thank You For Coming: Play, which opened last night at the Wexner Center. Driscoll choreographed, directed, wrote the text (in collaboration with Amanda K. Davidson and the performers) and original music (in collaboration with performer Sean Donovan and sound designer Bobby McElver of the Wooster Group) and lyrics (in collaboration with Donovan who also wrote the vocal arrangements). By the end of its taut 70 minutes, I was left slack-jawed and dazzled, wanting so much to talk about it, but not sure how to put it in words.
Play, the second chapter in the trilogy begun with Attendance (first seen here in Spring), brings back three performers from the earlier piece, Sean Donovan, Alicia Ohs, and Brandon Washington, and adds Paul Singh and Laurel Snyder. At its core, Play deals with how we construct our narratives through, well, play. And how much of play – both in the childlike and sexual uses of the term – is about boundaries, shifting rules of what the other people we need for play want and need. How we navigate our desire by learning theirs and learn to navigate the systems of the world. Anyone who’s ever been told, “You’re not playing right!” in the midst of a particularly good flight of fancy that’s leaving your friends behind, or “No, touch me like this now,” will have a frisson of recognition. It gets this across in a way only work that starts with the body and knows gesture and action have primacy over and under and around what we say can.
Not as immersive as the last piece, there’s a taste of that as the audience files in. We’re encouraged to walk around the stage, past the dancers, most of them sitting amidst strewn costumes making what at first sound like meditative “oms.” One or two people come to the front of the stage with a white collapsible backdrop, posing, performing basic dance moves, exaggerating feeling, deliberately playing for the back row, particularly a dazzling Snyder who sneers and grimaces like the heel in an old regional wrestling match.
As the lights go down, we have a section of the performers trying on costumes and working through a childlike story of “Baroon,” straight out of a pulp magazine. Subtle movements in the midst of ones that are artfully blown open and turned inside out. People change partners and shift who’s Baroon and who’s Baroon’s mother, stripping off and donning thin costumes like shedding skin over the similar black underwear on the performers. They switch who talks at the microphone, sometimes directly “being” one of the characters for someone else to mouth and sometimes commenting on the action. Like all those games of “let’s pretend,” it has a disjunctive, stop-and-start rhythm; the rules being renegotiated throughout. Song breaks out; the sound designer, in the midst of a meditation on the primacy of the drum, is dragged from his kit into the plane of the action and made to crawl on the floor in the middle of a line of people bound together by a bright pink rope. Everything is tweaked in the sense of everything being possible but also in the sense of “you’ve seen this before, don’t get too comfortable.”
It breaks the creation myth/coming of age/flirtation Baroon tale with lights coming up. Driscoll, appearing throughout as narrator, God, and stand-in for the audience, moves the “set” to the back wall in a graceful hurry. Haphazardly but with total intent slamming the collapsing boards shut, letting cast aside clothes fall. Creating a white, segmented backdrop in such a way the audience is aware of the physical energy required to make everything. In front of this backdrop plays a section that starts as naturalism, Donovan talking about loneliness and the rest of the group commiserating. But soon language starts to slip, the body – the main thing any of us ever really talk with – tells more and more of the story as the characters’ lips move but only say one word for what looks like every 20. Their gestures repeat, speed up and slow down, in a virtuosic display that reconfigures everything they say and slices it apart with action and silence. Light, darkness (provided by lighting designer Amanda K. Ringger), and the text accentuate and betray the bodies.
Play picks up the flag thrown by Attendance and deepens, complicates, and continues the theme that our personalities not only change but activate in response to other people. That contact changes us and the elements of the other people we absorb and take into ourselves can start out as slavish imitation but end up bringing out the essential qualities of who we are until even trying to decipher what comes from where is a fool’s game. Play is a bracing reminder that living in the world and trying to be content is a process and a struggle but anything worthwhile any of us do has to start there. At the same time, it breathes with sensual, beautiful, remarkable life of its own.
Faye Driscoll is one of the most fruitful relationships the Wexner Center for the Arts has cultivated over the last ten years. Watching her voice sharpen and come to life over a period, and various works is one of the greatest blessings having a center like this gives a community like ours, and (through residencies and commissions like this one) gives the world.
Thank You For Coming: Play runs through Sunday, September 25 with performances at 8:00 pm Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm Sunday. Tickets and more info are available at http://www.wexarts.org/performing-arts/faye-driscoll-thank-you-coming-play.