The constellations appeared as projected images in two productions last weekend. One was a workshop of a play-in-development, closing the day this goes to print, written, directed and performed by Val Kilmer, called Citizen Twain. It was performed in the Masonic Lodge of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Having agreed not to review the work-in-progress, i.e., to withhold expressions of opinion on it, there's no breach in revealing what has already appeared in the press: that Kilmer, in an excellent impersonation of Twain — yes, that judgment breaks the rules a bit, but I doubt they'll mind that part — embodies the ghost of Twain floating through ether into our corner of the 21st century.
The other production employing a projected image of the heavens is the world premiere of Matthew McCray's Eternal Thou, a sci-fi head trip sprung from the writings of Austrian-Jewish mystic Martin Buber (1878-1965), and examining the relationship between the continually evolving Internet and the people who use it. The play opened over the weekend as a guest production at Atwater Village Theater.
The larger purpose of Citizen Twain is to ponder heaven and hell, and a certain relationship between God and a sometimes embittered humorist, Twain, struggling with life's pointless agonies. Even the excerpts from Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rendered by Kilmer focus on human cruelty and folly, posing the implicit question of where God may stand on these matters. Hence, the postage-stamp image of thin, crusty Twain, with a shock of silver hair and a crook nose (Kilmer disappeared behind the makeup) staring out at the audience against a backdrop of swirling fog, or against the mighty Mississippi River — the waterway Twain turned into the emblem of a national search for identity, if not purpose. And, of course, those stars in the firmament.
Kilmer is a Christian Scientist, and there are references in his play to Twain's testy relationship with the founder of that religion, Mary Baker Eddy. That relationship may be the basis of a movie Kilmer hopes to make, and this stage workshop of a script now seven years in the making — the production at the cemetery was the latest in a series of tryouts around town — has been discussed as an antecedent to that project.
In one segment of the play, Twain recounts the technological changes that occurred during his lifetime (1835-1910), stirring in him a rumination upon inventions that change the shape of our lives. Twain would have seen the arrival of the telegraph (when he was an infant), anesthetics and antibiotics (in the middle of his life), and the radio and the airplane (nearer the end of his life). These may have changed and saved lives, altered perceptions of where and how we can live and perhaps even our collective relationship to the heavens — especially as we were learning to soar physically in machines that transported us through clouds into an open sky, hurtling toward what Galileo could only glimpse through his telescope.
What remain constant, however, are the more troubling, intractable dimensions of the human character, oft cited by Twain, all circling around man's capacity for malice, which is unique to us among the species — the pleasure we take in causing misery to others, even of our own kind. This inalienable truth led Twain, with an army of authors before him and since, to speculate upon whether God was Himself a humorist or just overly weary when He created man. And this question prompted Kilmer to beam an image of the cosmos behind that of Samuel Clemens, who, behind all his homespun quips, kept asking what we're really made of.
In Eternal Thou, playwright-director Matthew McCray transports us from the invention of the rotary telephone (putting a swath of Bell operators out of work) to a future of androids capable of replicating human experience through circuitry.
The central idea underlying McCray's nonlinear, highly conceptual, at times fascinating and at times impenetrable play is Buber's distinction between “I – it” and “I – thou.” The former refers to the more common relationship we use to perceive the world, placing ourselves at the center of things and then objectifying whatever or whomever we're interacting with. This, in Buber's view, is both the foundation of solipsism, of the kind of cruelty that Twain found so vexing, and of war (Buber spent much of his life wrestling with Israeli-Palestinian conflict). “I – it” occurs when we mistake a dialogue for what's actually a monologue, a “discussion” between ourselves and our predetermined view of the other.
The more rarefied ideal of “I – thou” occurs with the click of actually listening to people or entities beyond our own skins, engaging in a discussion based upon our ability to absorb their ideas with an open heart. The most ideal manifestation of “I – thou,” Buber believed, was in any individual's relationship with God. With “I- thou,” a person can transform and be transformed — the destination being enlightenment.
McCray investigates how our relationship with technology, as a stand-in for God, can transform us, and his view is neither idyllic nor cynical. There are a couple of soap-box scenes railing against the threat to an open network neutrality — “a principle that advocates no restrictions by Internet providers or governments on consumers' access to applications, data, users or businesses within the Internet” — a threat the FCC has so far called “unacceptable.” For the most part, however, McCray dramatizes an evolution of technology with more irony than indignation.
For example, in a segment on privacy, one character is tormented by the years-later repercussions of his Google search on penis size that's permanently locked into data banks. It comes on the heels of a delightful scene focusing on the first use of the rotary telephone. Compared to the days when operators connected callers, and privacy was never an expectation in that technology, a pair of lovers delight that they can talk dirty to each other in private. With our social media, we've simply returned to the days when there is no expectation of privacy. The play delivers this verdict more with a wink of the eye than a sneer.
Five actors (Rachel Appelbaum, Vonzell Carter, Jenny Greer, Jeffrey Johnson, Liam Springthorpe) in futuristic clinical attire (costumes by Ariel Boroff) depict the essences of our telecommunications system, portraying “Receiver,” “Channel,” “Sender,” “Feedback” and “Message,” while also morphing into human characters buffeted by the swiftly changing technology. Juxtaposed against the taut high-tech/sci-fi dialogue, there are translucent screens in front of and behind the stage, on which are beamed a Wooster Group-ish array of images, from binary codes, to the stars in the night sky, to replications of the actors that dissolve into static. Sarah Krainin's set includes a metallic tree, a variation of the emblem from Waiting for Godot, dangling silvery cords that soon will wrap around the rolling set pieces. The Web, of course, is a spider's web. The play suggests that, as corporations merge, the system that was open is now closing, storing all buying habits and data searches in the hands of a few, giving them omniscient, God-like power.
McCray's staging blurs the distinctions between the actors-as-tech-components and actors-as-people, so that the production is fuzzier than the play. The production is so sleek, I find myself sliding off its many, many surfaces.
In many ways, Eternal Thou is a 21st-century answer to Czech playwright Karel apek's 1920 sci-fi play R.U.R., about a rebellion by robots programmed to serve men. It has much the same melodrama, and many ideas that circle around each other more than they interlink: privacy, cyber-bullying, ownership of data, memory, essences of perception, what we can find in the patterns of the stars in the sky.
Like Kilmer's Citizen Twain, it aims to fathom the mind of God.
ETERNAL THOU | Written and directed by Matthew McCray | Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. (added perfs Thurs., April 12, & Mon., April 23, 8 p.m.) | Through April 23 | eternalthou.eventbrite.com