19 September 2009

Radio Play: The Designated Mourner

First, obviously, I ate the cake. And then I grabbed some matches which sat nearby me, and I glanced around, and I lit the bit of paper. "I am the designated mourner," I said.

The bit of paper wasn't very big, but it burned rather slowly, because of the cake crumbs. I thought I heard John Donne crying into a handkerchief as he fell through the floor -- plummeting fast through the earth on his way to Hell. He name, once said by so many to be "immortal," would not be remembered, it turned out. The rememberers were gone, except for me, and I was forgetting: forgetting his name, forgetting him, and forgetting all the ones who remembered him.
I'm working on an essay for Rain Taxi about the plays and essays of Wallace Shawn (in my opinion, one of the great writers of our time), and via a link in this profile/interview, I discovered that WNYC produced an uncensored radio version of Shawn's greatest play, The Designated Mourner, in 2002, and that that radio version is available as streaming audio here on the intertubes.

And we're not talking just any radio version -- this one is done under the direction of Andre Gregory using the cast of his 2000 production: Wallace Shawn, Shawn's longtime companion Deborah Eisenberg (herself among the greatest short story writers alive), and the excellent Larry Pine (best known to me for his magnificent performance as Dr. Astrov in Gregory's Uncle Vanya, filmed by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, in which Shawn played Vanya). The Gregory production of the play is, in some circles at least, legendary, especially since it seemed impossible to get tickets if you were mortal (yes, I tried, and, being mortal, failed). Tickets were especially difficult to get because the play was performed for an intimate audience -- I've heard there were chairs for about 30 people -- and the run was not particularly long.

So huge kudos to WNYC for the radio version. It's different in tone and rhythm from the original 1996 production, directed and later filmed by David Hare, and Shawn is not as varied and compelling a performer as Mike Nichols was in the lead role of Jack, but Eisenberg gives a vastly more interesting performance than Miranda Richardson and Pine is different from but at least the equal to David de Keyser. The voices and deliveries of Shawn, Eisenberg, and Pine are more noticeably balanced in Gregory's version of the plan than in Hare's -- Shawn performs the lines with stagy deliberation in his famous syrupy, high-pitched voice; Eisenberg's voice is more ethereal, distanced, portentous, like a voice in a memory or a dream; Pine is the only one who sounds at least marginally ordinary and human, which is particularly ironic given how Jack portrays Howard as such a disconnected elitist. It's a more coherent and equitable production than Hare's (the film, at least), where Mike Nichols gave such an astounding performance that the other actors struggled to keep up with him.

Shawn's plays from Aunt Dan & Lemon on have contained more monologues than dialogue (and The Fever is entirely a monologue), and none rely on complex sets, so they are well served as radio plays. The Designated Mourner especially so; it burrows into your mind and imagination.

By the way, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Shawn's new play -- his first since The Designated Mourner -- is strange and fascinating, in many ways a culmination of the themes and motifs he's been playing with for his entire career. It begins as a kind of science fiction story about a man whose invention ruins the food supply of the world, then it becomes an explicitly sexual, utterly surreal, and pretty dark riff on fairy tales (especially "The White Cat") before ending up as an enigmatic and oddly affecting amalgam of both. If Robert Aickman and K.W. Jeter got together to write a play, it might have turned out something like this.

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