BWW Review: Mac Wellman's mini-masterpiece THE INVENTION OF TRAGEDY at The Flea Theater
How to describe the oratorically dense, frequently hysterical and mind-buzzingly creative The Invention of Tragedy? How does Shakespeare sound to a young child? "Let there be a dragon of trees and washing without wash cloths bags cats wardrobes bungle things and other things traps and twerps and words and greater words of estuarial conviviality." My new favorite kind of conviviality, it turns out.
Originally written in 2004 and having its world premiere now, Mac Wellman's exuberant mini-masterpiece is a refreshingly idiosyncratic theatrical experience. When you see as much theater as I do, there is an unique joy when confronted with something this complex and wacky. He is clearly reflecting on the dangers of groupthink and mob mentality. His chorus repeatedly intones "and chop the chails off all cats." I was reminded of different clowns, the ones who chant "lock her up."
His chorus demonstrates in words and actions a mutual reinforcement of symbols and ideas and speak. I enforce you and you enforce me. "When an each becomes an all, the all becomes an each." That "is the invention of tragedy." After the Hare (Susan Ly, excellent) recites this analysis, the narrator cues yet another catastrophic cat reference and there is "a tragic paws."
One particular member of the chorus (a very winning Drita Kabashi), however, has her eyes wide open. She's a mischievous rebel who clearly isn't falling in line. The entire play is set in the auditorium of a parochial school. At one point, this sore thumb starts chugging church wine rather than obediently reciting her lines in formation with the others. She takes a stand to say, "I am here to announce and PROCLAIM a departure of all cats." Eventually she will be challenged by the one who wields an axe. This is a play of ideas not plot but amusingly The Invention of Tragedy does embrace "all things felineckety."
The narrator sits at an organ scoring the action with ominous and simple chords. She drolly comments on the action, highlighting stage directions like "a pause of inappropriate dogginess." I was compelled to frequently watch Sarah Alice Shull perform her role. She wrings so much subtle irony from her lines. Her facial expressions and body language were arguably even more entertaining.
Our rebel is singled out right from the start of this play. The chorus says about her: "This difference is a problem." Mr. Wellman further elaborates that "this difference is a problem for one and all as we shall see the problem will not go away." This is a society which craves sameness "and chop the chails off cats." If you have any capacity for critical thinking, the analogies to many current events are obvious and bracing (despite having been written in 2004).
Surrounding the essential themes of this play, there are countless lines of exquisite jibberish. There were many of us in the audience delighting in the quirky verbiage. A big laugh greeted this enchantment: "Goose ascending in tall aspect to please the St. Elmer's fire."
Mr. Wellman is not simply being silly here and looks to bond with his listening audience. "And yes, like you perhaps, I am inclined to fight windmills because I cannot say what it is I really want to say." It's not a big stretch to think about The Invention of Tragedy and today's bizarre groupthink alliances. Is this play any more incomprehensible than the current adoration society between fundamentalist Evangelicals, serial sexual predators and gun waving 'Mericans?
Meghan Finn directed this stellar production. What happens on stage is no simple feat. The language is intricate but this outstanding cast of young women makes it look effortless. And fun. It really comes across as a warped school play. Some admittedly will be baffled; it's like sitting in the middle of a Trump rally. You can understand the words individually. The imbecilic mob mentality, on the other hand, may seem elusive and repulsive.
Theater that entertains this extravagantly while baring its fangs so intelligently is a treat. Many, many decades from now, I hope this particularly horrific era will be embarrassing to a future state where differences are celebrated. And with more gentle words. Like Mr. Wellman, "I like the quiet idea, that rides imperceptibly through time and history, like a ripple on a pond." Embrace the different theatrically and pounce (like a cat!) on this one.