November 16, 2004

Playwright Jeremy Cohan strives for "the untranslatable"

Written and directed by student Jeremy Cohan, A (Serious) Game for Three (Really Four) Players is the sort of work that we should hope to see more of from University Theater's newly established workshops. The longest of four productions comprising "Fourplay: A Weekend of Workshops," A (Serious) Game is a delightful exploration of the possibilities of theater. Although all workshop shows must be performed minus elaborate lights, costumes, and sets, these restrictions did not prove limiting; instead, they gave the show boundaries to push. A mostly empty stage was the perfect place—in fact, the only place—where the script could have been performed. The setting is ever in flux, as are the characters themselves. The blank stage is a canvas on which we watch the process of theatrical creation. The play builds new worlds and tears them down in an instant.

This process leaves the audience's heads whirling as fast as the characters' dialogue spurts out. Lines shoot back and forth in what often resembles Shakespearean conversation (both in its sophistication and its ridiculousness). One of my only complaints was that the rapidity with which the lines were delivered often left them unintelligible, quite a shame considering the brilliance of the ones that I did catch.

Placards around the actor's necks indicate their various assumed identities. These placards, hanging on the wall when not in use, inspire the audience's curiosity with titles like "Not Y's Wife" and "Corpse." Still, a root identity underlies each of the characters' many assumed ones. Over the course of the evening, we get to know X, played by Margot Spellman; Y, played by Joel Putnam; and Verity, played by Jane Lopes. The show makes enormous demands of these three. They throw themselves against walls, fall on the floor, kiss passionately, and run around the stage in circles. As it turns out, they are victims of the whims of the "Creator with a capital C"—the playwright—who inserts himself into the production at its close.

The ending serves to justify a lot of the confusion that the philosophically dense dialogue spawns. Interrupting what the audience believes to be the final applause, X, holding a flashlight under her chin in the dark, reassures the audience that they should not despair at any failure to interpret what they have just witnessed: "You are all victims of a...plot to make you think that you have just seen something profound, very stirring, very modern, very experimental, very difficult, and very important. Well, I am here to disabuse you of all that."

The play is dedicated to and attempts to be "the untranslatable." For this reason, any attempts to explain what I saw on Thursday night in the First Floor Theater would take far more space than I have here. I cannot say such an explanation is even producible. Even questions raised by the title are unanswered. The identity of the fourth player is debatable: Is it the audience or the playwright himself? Is it the guy who makes the "fire speech" (which is too complicated to get into here)?

In any case, such questions ensure that the audience's intellectual engagement does not end with the play's end. But even the end of the play proves indefinite. As the audience exits the theater, Verity, who has committed suicide, remains facedown on stage. No curtain call reunites the actors with their everyday identities. For these reasons, I left the theater feeling that just over my shoulder, the universe of theatrical possibilities laid out by A (Serious) Game for Three (Really Four) Players would continue.