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January 13, 2009

Inuit cold blood: Eerie Eskimo bogeymen haunt Private Lives

Thanks to ice cream ad campaigns and lovely phrases like “Eskimo kisses,” Eskimos seems to have become the unwitting representatives of youthful happiness and innocent delights. Against this light-hearted niche, The Mill Theatre’s production of The Private Lives of Eskimos conceives a much darker, almost sinister, role for these arctic inhabitants. These Eskimos do not blissfully romp through the snow or freely give out Eskimo kisses. In this concept-driven production, they are psychological tormentors who plague the human mind.

Marvin is an average guy who has an unusual fascination with spam. Most people would immediately delete e-mails with subject lines like “BE LARGER NOW!!!” But Marvin finds some humor in the profanity and absurdity of the clutter in his inbox. Yet as he reads more, the messages gradually become more mysterious. One simply states, “You will never feel enough.” As Marvin reads this message, the sudden ringing of his cell phone grabs his attention.

He barely misses the call, but quickly checks the message that was just left on the phone. His sister’s voice bursts through in a terrified panic. Helpless, Marvin can only listen to her brief, frantic words before the call goes dead. He soon learns that these were his sister’s final words before she died.

Overwhelmed by this tragedy, Marvin becomes trapped in an unrelenting depression that seems to get worse by the day. He listens to his sister’s message constantly. The phone becomes his obsession. But one day, he loses the cell phone and calls it, only to find that it has been acquired somehow by a mysterious woman. Driven by neurotic impulses, Marvin is compelled to recover the phone. He shrinks away from his girlfriend, Christine, and his co-worker, Tom, in a single-minded pursuit that forces him to retreat from the outside world.

Everything about Mill Theatre’s production is designed to convey the shattered state of Marvin’s mind. The surrealistic set design relies on abstract shapes with awkward angles and lots of pointy corners—very effective in creating a cramped, desperate mood. One small part of the stage forms Marvin’s office, while another is his apartment, a café and a police station. Even the relatively small size of the theater itself contributes to a feeling of confinement. The combined effect is to significantly amplify the impact of Marvin’s volatile emotions.

By now, you might be wondering how Eskimos fit into Marvin’s story. Marvin is prone to panic attacks when he is speaking with other characters. During these anxious fits, the other person he is talking to suddenly starts babbling lines from junk mail. At the same time, an Eskimo appears in the background, glaring malignantly at the audience. The panic attacks last no longer than a few seconds, and Marvin seems to be the only character aware of the garbled lines of spam and the generally terrifying appearance of the Eskimos.

In a sense, the Eskimos represent both the best and worst of this play. The combination of the stylized design, clever staging, and disorienting displays of surrealism are very effective in eliciting a feeling of extreme unease. But the script seems to leave these feelings floating up in the air at the end of the play, without a satisfying resolution.

“Open to interpretation” endings can be particularly disappointing. This breed of dramatic resolution can be effective and appropriate when it brings the characters’ experiences to a climax in a way that gives the play a sense of unity, even if the plot is left mostly unresolved. The final scene of Steppenwolf’s recent production of Kafka on the Shore is a wonderfully executed example of this type of ending. But the resolution of The Private Lives of Eskimos is too abstract to achieve any significant culmination. The play’s finale left one with the feeling that the characters had suddenly been abandoned right in the middle of the most important moment in the plot.

The disappointment of its ending notwithstanding, The Private Lives of Eskimos is worth seeing for its uniqueness and its frankly beautiful execution until just before the end. If amputated plot arcs are not a substantial source of vexation for you, you will enjoy this interesting and entertaining exploration of human idiosyncrasies.