Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: Mac Wellman's mini-masterpiece THE INVENTION OF TRAGEDY at The Flea Theater

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.

The Invention of Tragedy is part of the Flea Theater's festival of five plays called Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophe's running through November 1st.



Premiere of FLIGHT DELAY By Peter Anderegg Will Open at The Tank Next Week Photo
On December 1st Thisbe Theater Company opens Peter Anderegg's Flight Delay directed by Kelly Morgan at The Tank. The production runs until the 18th at 312 West 36th Street in New York City.

LEAVES by Victor Vauban Jr. to be Presented at Teatro LATEA in December Photo
'LEAVES” by Victor Vauban Jr. will be presented at Teatro LATEA Nov.30th, Dec. 2nd & 4th. The primary themes of this play include assimilation, colorism, the importance of family and mental health.

Vangeline Theater/New York Butoh Institute to Host Fundraising Gala in December Photo
Vangeline Theater has announced a Fundraising Gala on Sunday, December 11, 2022 at 8pm at Temple NYC, Brooklyn. Proceeds from the gala will support sending dancers to Houston, Texas, from February 6-10, 2023 to make history conducting a pilot study for The Slowest Wave - the first neuroscientific study of Butoh.

Cast Announced For the Festival of New Jewish Plays Photo
The Jewish Plays Project has announced casting for the Festival of New Jewish Plays, running November 30 and December 1 at the JCC.


From This Author - Joe Lombardi

I've joined the Broadway World community as a theater critic after having started my blog and podcast at TheaterReviewsFromMySeat. 

... (read more about this author)

BWW Review: THE WETSUITMAN at The Cherry Artists' CollectiveBWW Review: THE WETSUITMAN at The Cherry Artists' Collective
March 28, 2022

An old white man is walking his dog along the coast in Norway.  He notices a black spot 'out there in the distance'.  At first he thinks it may be an oil slick.  His dog barks and goes near.  The spot is a wetsuit.  There are bones protruding from the flipper now in the dog's teeth.  The Wetsuitman begins as a mysterious Scandinavian crime thriller.

BWW Review: SOMETIME CHILD: A RECLAMATION AND A REDEMPTION at Theater For The New CityBWW Review: SOMETIME CHILD: A RECLAMATION AND A REDEMPTION at Theater For The New City
March 18, 2022

On one side of the stage there is a tony law office with its desks, books and golf clubs.  The opposite side is a representation of a poor urban neighborhood.  Garbage litters the ground.  Stark contrasts between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' are on full display in the new play Sometime Child: a Reclamation and a Redemption.

BWW Review: Defeat the Chauvinist Monster in BLACK FEMINIST VIDEO GAME streaming onlineBWW Review: Defeat the Chauvinist Monster in BLACK FEMINIST VIDEO GAME streaming online
May 1, 2021

A mixture of Zoom live action, audience interaction and an old school video game, Darrel Alejandro Holnes' Black Feminist Video Game is overfilled with levels.  There's light comedy, melodrama, politics, silliness, boldly underscored learnings and, yes, a two dimensional video game to conquer.  'True men are feminists' is the mantra that concludes this journey.

BWW Review: Claustrophobic angst in the outstanding FRANZ KAFKA'S LETTER TO MY FATHER at M-34BWW Review: Claustrophobic angst in the outstanding FRANZ KAFKA'S LETTER TO MY FATHER at M-34
March 4, 2021

At some point during the outstanding live stream performance of Franz Kafka's Letter To My Father, yet another reference began swirling in my mind.  Lyrics from an old song from the late 1970's band Split Enz bizarrely came into focus.  'History never repeats / I tell myself before I go to sleep / There's a light shining in the dark / Leading me on towards a change of heart, ah.'  Both that song and Kafka's writing explore an anguished mental condition as a result of bitter relationships.

BWW Review: A satisfyingly eerie FAR AWAY at PTP/NYCBWW Review: A satisfyingly eerie FAR AWAY at PTP/NYC
October 17, 2020

A good creepy play can get under the viewer’s skin.  Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is one such piece.  The setting is a “familiar country, over the period of several decades.”  While the country may be familiar, the goings on are most certainly not.  A sense of dread, foreboding and discomfort hook you in quickly until it is impossible to put your feet on solid ground.