Video, Words and Photos by: Jen Kennedy
I arrived at a secret location in Chinatown to see three linked plays. The stories confront the look of madness or survival in a world at its absolute end. The series was called Rivulets, but the plays had their own subtitles and were separate distinct vignettes, all set in the aftermath of a disastrous flood. A fish becomes a man, a woman dies and becomes rain, and a man kills his daughter. The plays chart territories of the human psyche that are seldom explored, playing with the dangerous and the ludicrous to the narrow edge of insanity. And yet, given these extreme conditions, we are led to see that madness can make sense; insanity becomes sane. I love experiencing art that strives to reason with the impossible, and I was thrilled to see how the evening would unfold.
The venue was an old red brick building; inside was a huge room with folding, collapsible walls. When the walls were closed the room appeared tiny; however, these walls would be folded back throughout the performance, opening the space larger and larger until, to my surprise, it was as spacious as a gymnasium. No one in the audience could have expected this, while we stood in the waiting room. I looked around me, surrounded by people tinted green under the flickering fluorescent lights, and could see that this was no conventional theatre; it reminded me of an abandoned 90’s office building. But director/dramaturg Marie Farsi choose this building specifically so we would be taken in by the strange atmosphere from the beginning: to feel like we had entered a world rather than a theatre. This world was rough and abandoned, with fraying carpets and cracking cement. I was actually smiling, growing more and more curious the longer I stood there.
Led by an usher down a hallway, we came into an even smaller room than the one we’d been waiting in. This was the room that would grow before our eyes with each play; of course, we had no idea at the time. Looking around at the four tightly-enclosed walls, I could not see a stage, or any room for one. I spotted milk crates upside-down on the floor for us to sit on. Taking a crate, I stared at the wall in front of me. The sound of grinding metal raked through my ears, dragging my focus to a dark haired man wearing a butcher’s apron. He was unlocking some kind of a latch and, with the motion of his whole body, pushed the wall back in on itself like an accordion. With a screeching metal sound he latched it and locked the wall in place. He then walked into the extended space he’d revealed to us, which was large enough to hold a big table and stacks of wooden boxes. I kept thinking I saw blood everywhere when he looked penetratingly at us and began to talk.
FISHMANN (play number 1)
It’s hard to understand if playwright James Gordon King was using poetry or prose to express the ramblings of the Fishmann. But actor Aryo Khakpour, with his highly expressive eyes and fierce hand movements, pulled me into his words. What he was telling was the state of his reality: after the world-obliterating flood, somehow he was turned from a fish into a man and became part of the community of human survivors. There was no food, so everyone had to do their part to help. His role was to hack up the only food he could find—that being the bodies of dead women.
Oddly enough, the Fishmann was charming and quirky and sweet, guiding us through how he found and organized the bodies, the best way to make the right incision, the financial rewards he’d gain being a part of the community’s new micro economy; the practical details of his work. The blood on his hands and the twinkle in his eyes did not allude to him being a psychopath, or shape-shifter, or some creature of the underworld. He was merely a man living in a new world and doing what needed to be done. While he seemed unconsciously haunted or confused by the life he was now living, he displayed uncanny confidence as he climbed over the table and jumped to the floor, as though he had moulded his perceptions to suit his needs.
It is within the power of this lone individual to envision an alternative world to replace the one he had lost, or to escape the one he is afraid of. He is only as crazy as he needs to be to survive.
With his final words—his eyes dazzling as they hid a vain, haunted struggle to rid what pressed on his brain—he lowered his head and wandered to the left side of the room. The loud, cutting screech of metal clanging startled me as he unlatched another wall and folded it back. The entire audience leaned a little to see into the dark, extended space the Fishmann had revealed to us. He stood at the edge of the border where his room and the next met, and I saw him shrug and nod to us as if to say “go in.”
SEABIRD IS IN A HAPPY PLACE (play number 2)
We walked into the new stage area, which was huge with very high ceilings but tightly packed with many angles, dark walls and large raised platforms that stood high overhead. There were more milk crates on the floor, so we took our seats.
Off in the shadow and light was a woman, deep within her mind’s eye. She was Seabird, played by actor Emilie Leclerc. Sitting high up on a giant black box, she looked down at us and opened up about the world she had been living in since the flood. She actually died but came back as rain. Somehow, in this psychological storm of shifting form, she was able to be rain and human at once. She met and started an affair with a flood survivor, a woman. But their passion evolved into love—the painful and all-consuming kind.
Seabird was trapped in a mental storm: addicted to the agony of romance and the love of sex, while having to reconcile the reality of her own transformation and the destruction of the world. All of this pulled her emotions into different directions. She longed to be near her lover, who filled her with as much pain as satisfaction. At the same time, she wanted to disappear from this ghostly existence in a destroyed world. All of this she could escape from if it would only stop raining. But it wouldn’t stop; or she wouldn’t stop. “Stop raining!” she begged the sky over and over, toward the end of her exceptional performance.
As I looked at Seabird it seemed as if her soul was a fading light. Her will to live flickered, dim and then bright, within her eyes. She stared off, across an infinite distance, when she remembered her love affair, and her whole existence, would end. It was like she forgot she wasn’t really apart of the human world and that she would not and could not belong anymore.
She slipped into a spirit land, never to see her lover or the world of the living again. All she wished was that she could tell those still alive that Seabird was in a happy place.
(Since this performance “Seabird is in a Happy Place” won the Samuel French 40th Annual Off Off Broadway Playwriting Competition in NYC).
As Seabird sat in the rain of her own absolute personal aloneness, the Fishmann reappeared, waving us to follow him, pulling us out of a kind of meditation.
We returned to the milk crates where we had been before, but this time we sat facing a different direction. Fishmann peeled back another wall and there before us was a kitchen ravaged by the flood, where a father and his grown daughter lived.
GOD WILL PROVIDE (play number 3)
Above the breakfast table, in what might have been the only room left intact in this house, were floating pieces of wood. They dangled over the heads of the father and daughter, who were continuing a conversation that seemed to have been going on for some time. The daughter, played by actor Lucy Mcnulty, had questions: she wanted to know why her father and his generation did nothing to stop the sequence of events that led to the flood.
Her dad, performed by Alec Willows, tried to keep it light, to keep his daughter happy. He tried to amuse her and get her to stop talking about it.
“But everything is destroyed. What kind of life am I supposed to live now?” she asked, with good reason. As she questioned him, his attempts to distract her grew increasingly intense; it was obvious that he loved her, yet was desperate to avoid facing the situation. Finally, she bade him: “I want you to kill me.” This got his attention. “I want you to kill me,” she calmly said again, explaining that it was as though he killed her already, long before, by doing nothing to stop the flood. “So you might as well kill me now,” she repeated, her voice a hymn of perfect emotionless logic. Holding a knife before him, she stated her wishes once more, and forced her father to take the blade.
The father appeared afraid of his daughter, and at the same time completely exhausted by her. It was clear that he sought a sense of release in this world; a world that he had lost the power to change. At last, he succumbed to his daughter’s wishes. Pinning her down, he held the knife high; but he hesitated. The victims—the hapless young woman and the helpless man—pulled each other close in a spasm, drawing the audience into their pantomime. The father closed his eyes beneath a spotlight: a blazing, angelic beam that illuminated only the two bodies.
And he assumed the role of the ultimate provider.
The white light flashed to darkness and we were left in silence. Though we were left to imagine the outcome, it was obvious that he had done what she willed him to do. Or perhaps he knew it was the only compassionate thing he had left to offer her. In this house, death finally came to those who so desperately wanted it.
And though this marked the end of Rivulets, and we all applauded and stood to gather our belongings, no one was ready to leave. We wanted to sit for a while and think, or just be quiet.
Playwright James Gordon King’s brilliant writing is descriptive, but it can also seem elusive. He appears to use prose but it is so precise in its description of alternative mental and emotional landscapes that it almost sounds like poetry. His stories are psychologically focused, playing out in realms that are so far off, so foreign, that the intricate inner experiences the characters have are harder to understand than the words which describe them. There are lives and realities exploding all around that we cannot comprehend, simply because they remain outside our experience. However, ultimately the struggles are relatable through the vortex of a human emotional connection. Given that he writes almost primarily inside the complex realms of the psyche of his characters, I would suggest that King is not necessarily a visual writer: that is, he’s not attached to the specifics of form.
It is in the collaboration between King and director/dramaturg Marie Farsi that the words become a visual story. Farsi has an aptitude for synthesising the actors’ performances with the lighting, sound, and set design, in order to fully flesh out each of the character’s identity and circumstances. Farsi successfully translated the psychological and emotional landscapes into the physical medium of theatre, allowing for an even more intense and impactful connection to the characters and their perplexing realities.
There is something profound about ambitious art such as Rivulets. It leaves familiarity so far behind that the audience is fixated in another world. I felt welcomed to let go of what I thought reality was and to instead go into the landscapes that this production offered. I was led down a strange path as walls rolled back revealing deeper chambers into the mental and physical plains of human experience. It was in the corners of these worlds that I became enchanted and lost, for a little while, in the chaos of imagination.
by Jen Kennedy