Wrinkles in the mind
Bringing essays to life: Foster-Wallace, Suzuki/Cullis on PuSh stages
Far more explicitly essayistic is Theatre Replacement’s Footnote Number 12. In fact, as we file into the black box of Granville Island’s Performance Works, we each find on our seat a paperback book of essays by belle lettriste David Foster Wallace. Each book is dog-eared to a 2006 New York Times piece, ostensibly about tennis, with select passages carefully bracketed or underlined by hand.
It’s hardly your run-of-the-mill sports journalism; rather an extended meditation – with footnotes, no less, and footnotes to the footnotes! – upon the hermeneutic resonance of the epochal 2005 match between tennis greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.
But don’t expect any rolling green vistas, grassy courts, gleaming white togs or whippet action here at Performance Woirks. Instead, PuSh audiences get the studiously schlubby figure of Theatre Replacement co-artistic director James Long in a tricot shirt, his hangdog face shadowed by a visor cap, slouching between stools around a flimsy camp table.
He recites from an unbound copy of the Wallace essay, crumpling up each leaf of the script as he’s done with it. Now and then he gathers some of the balled up pages to play a kind of stationery pétanque – about as sporty as we’re going to get.
The only other player onstage is soundboard operator Nancy Tam, black-clad and expressionless, as diminutive as Long is gangly, severe straight-cut bangs fringing her pie-eyed Lucite specs. She mostly sits in the front row, back to the audience, twiddling dials. Each tweak summons up a whole new character in the show.
Except, disorientingly, they all emanate out of Long’s mouth; Tam’s soundboard bends the pitch, tone and timbre of his voice so drastically that he can sound like a lisping, wistful child, a maidenly grammarian or a stentorian professor. He inhabits each of these personae in turn to highlight different registers of Walace’s storytelling.
In the high-pitched child voice, he keeps returning to the image of the “coin-toss boy” who determines the match’s opening serve – a chemo-scarred cancer survivor who’s a peripheral figure in the Wimbledon ceremonies but a potent symbol in the Federer/Nadal teleology. As the reflective schoolmarm, he parses the stark binaries that Wallace so abundantly invokes: “the king-versus-regicide…Apollo and Dionysus. Scalpel and cleaver. Righty and southpaw.”
With typically professorial throat-clearing eructations, Long’s baritone voice tutors us to read the essay from the bottom up, i.e. broaching the main text by starting with the footnotes. So we’re reminded, right in in footnote #1, that “There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body…. pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits,” but that “great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter.”
And from there we’re referred back to Wallace’s core concept in the main text of “kinetic beauty,” which “has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms,” but rather with “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
After nearly an hour of speaking in tongues like this, the preciosity of it all gets too much for Long in all three of his avatars. He smashes up the flimsy stage furniture while raging against Wallace as an overly clever, privileged white boy who wound up so unreconciled to his own privileged bodily existence that he inexplicably tossed it all with his and suicide, just two years after the Times essay, at age 46.
Then, just as abruptly, Long repents his tantrum, reassembles the table and campstools and reverts to the essay, but this time in his own, undistorted voice. After all the soundboard jiggery-pokery, his straightforward tenor seems an act of great vulnerability and sincerity, even when parsing the nit-picky titular Footnote #12 (which ponders a point of “dodgy” Brit grammar).
But it’s his final footnote, #17, that brings the audience to hushed silence and then a standing ovation. That’s where Wallace pull together all the strands of the essay: the religiosity, the poignancy of the chemo “coin boy” and the “kinetic beauty” of Federer.
“It’s like a thought that’s also a feeling... that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer.” Yes, and also produced and Tam and Long and the show’s Norwegian scriptwriter/conceptualizer Andrea Spreafico.
“And just look at [them] down there,” the note concludes. “Look at that.”